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Victoria next state to compel priests to report confessed child sex abuse

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Victoria is joining South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia in moving to introduce laws to force priests to report child sex abuse revealed to them during the sacrament of confession.

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The bill, introduced into Victorian parliament yesterday, would make religious ministers mandatory reporters of abuse suspicions alongside police, teachers, medical practitioners and early childhood workers.

“I don’t think in contemporary and mainstream times, knowing what we know now, that we can do anything other than say the rights of children trump anyone’s religious views,” Victoria’s Attorney-General Jill Hennessy told reporters.

“Ultimately this is about making sure that we start to right the wrongs of systemic abuse,” she said.

Crossbench MP Fiona Patten welcomed the move, saying “I think that Jesus would mandatory report.”

Under the laws, priests and spiritual leaders face up to three years’ jail if they don’t report child physical and sexual abuse allegations.

Last month, laws forcing priests to report child sex abuse revealed under the seal of confession passed Tasmania’s lower house.

“Under this reform, members of religious ministry will not be able to rely on the confessional privilege to refuse to disclose information,” Tasmania’s Attorney General Elise Archer said.

Lifting the seal of confession was one of more than 400 recommendations made in 2018 by the royal commission into institutionalised child sex abuse.

South Australia passed a law in 2017, which came into effect last October – imposing a maximum $10,000 fine on anyone who fails to report a suspicion that a child or young person is at risk of abuse.

The legislation relates to a suspicion formed “in the course of the person’s employment”, and makes specific provision for “work as a minister of religion or as part of the duties of a religious or spiritual vocation”.

The mandatory reporting law was introduced following a recommendation of the Nyland Royal Commission, but was criticised for not containing a specific offence of concealing knowledge of a criminal offence.

The Victorian legislation would also allow survivors of institutional abuse to apply to the Supreme Court to overturn “unfair” compensation settlements previously signed with churches.

Chrissie Foster, who with her late husband fought for years for compensation for their two girls who were abused by a Catholic priest, says there is no excuse for priests who fail to report confessions of abuse.

“The Catholic priesthood tried to get away with a basement bargain deal with all of this. They should pay until they can’t stand up,” Foster said.

But the Catholic Church has insisted priests would be obliged to defy the laws.

In the Catholic Church, the seal of confession is the absolute duty of priests not to disclose anything that they learn from penitents during the sacrament of penance (confession).

In a pastoral letter issued last year when the laws were flagged, Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli wrote he was “strongly committed to reporting to the appropriate authorities” but “I am also strongly committed to upholding the seal of confession”.

The Archdiocese of Adelaide last year said also priests would have no choice but to defy any law requiring them to break confession, saying it was a “sacred encounter between a penitent and someone seeking forgiveness and a priest representing Christ”.

“That does not change by the law of politicians,” it said.

In July this year, the Vatican issued a statement stating no government or law could force clergy to violate the seal “because this duty comes directly from God”.

It said: “Any political action or legislative initiative aimed at breaking the inviolability of the sacramental seal would constitute an unacceptable offence against the (freedom of the Church),” the document said.

“(The Church) does not receive its legitimacy from individual States, but from God; it (breaking the seal) would also constitute a violation of religious freedom, legally fundamental to all other freedoms, including the freedom of conscience of individual citizens, both penitents and confessors.”

-with AAP

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