WASHINGTON – Legislation has been proposed in Australia to limit the religious freedom of Roman Catholic priests under the guise of seeking out sexual predators.
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released 85 recommendations on Aug. 14 for “reforming the Australian criminal justice system in order to provide a fairer response to victims of institutional child sexual abuse.”
Most of the recommendations are common-sense reforms aimed at making it easier to find and punish sexual predators who target children.
However, one in particular is drawing fire from Catholics and advocates of religious freedom.
The report recommends that the Australian government make it a criminal offense for a priest not to report a sexual abuser of a child if he comes to the priest in confession.
“Clergy should not be able to refuse to report because the information was received during confession,” the report stated.
Th requirement would force Catholic priests to violate the seal of the confessional, which is the sacred duty of a priest to keep any sins confessed during the Sacrament of Penance a secret.
Catholics believe that what is said in the confessional is between the penitent and God, and the priest merely acts in the place of God. Thus, he has no authority to reveal what he has heard while administering the sacrament.
The seal is so strict that it binds not only the priest but anyone who overhears a confession while standing outside, and the penalty is automatic excommunication. Only the pope himself can lift such an excommunication.
The report has drawn intense backlash from Catholics who are concerned about the potential infringement on their religious liberty.
As far back as 2012, Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic cleric, refused to reveal priests who had confessed child abuse to him. He said, however, that if he knew what the priest had done beforehand, he would refuse to hear their confession and turn them over to the authorities.
The Catholic Church celebrates as saints and martyrs members who have been persecuted or killed for refusing to violate the seal of the confessional.
Priests can, and some argue must, advise the penitent to turn themselves in to authorities if they hear of a serious crime such as murder or sexual abuse in the confessional.
However, as Catholic priest and blogger John Zuhlsdorf points out, the priest “can urge the person to turn herself in, but he can’t impose that as a condition” of being absolved, or forgiven by God, for their sins.
“A priest can strongly urge, firmly counsel, warmly encourage a penitent to ‘do the right thing,’ that is, conform her amended life to the dictates of justice,” Zuhlsdorf explained. “However, if he has a moral certainty that the penitent is penitent and intends to amend her life, he should not withhold absolution.”