Ballarat abuse survivors who have suffered years of abuse in Catholic Church-run and owned institutions have condemned the Catholic Church’s long-awaited response to recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
While Australia's Catholic leaders have vowed to end the cover up of child sexual abuse and have claimed acceptance of 98 per cent of recommendations, the rules around the Seal of Confession remains unbroken.
The commission called on the Holy See to make numerous changes to centuries-old church canon law including that the "pontifical secret" does not apply to abuse allegations and to consider voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy.
Priests and others will not be required to disclose reports of child sexual abuse, even if it risks criminal charges.
Ballarat clergy abuse survivor Phil Nagle has long campaigned for changes, and he was furious after reading the long-awaited response of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) and Catholic Religious Australia (CRA)
“What they announced today is unbelievable. They have accepted pretty much everything but the seal of confession – that’s the one they’ve rejected because they believe they are above the law.”
Mr Nagle spoke on behalf of many Ballarat clergy abuse survivors, and said he was bitterly disappointed.
“They (the Church) have had every opportunity … the Royal Commission gave them the chance to make changes, but instead they have continued with the same model they’ve had for thousands of years.
“That model hasn’t worked and now they are saying they are not going to report criminal acts, which means they are harbouring criminals,” Mr Nagle said.
“That’s the way the Government should treat the church – like a criminal organisation, seize their assets and treat them like any one else who breaks the law.”
Catholic leaders have vowed the Catholic Church's history of clergy abuse of children will never be repeated, pledging accountability and an action plan in response to the Royal Commission's call for sweeping reforms.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and the peak body for religious orders, Catholic Religious Australia, will not yield to the royal commission's call to break the seal of confession to reveal child sexual abuse, even if priests face the prospect of criminal charges under extended mandatory reporting laws.
"This is because it is contrary to our faith and inimical to religious liberty," ACBC president Archbishop Mark Coleridge and CRA president Sister Monica Cavanagh said.
"We are committed to the safeguarding of children and vulnerable people while maintaining the seal. We do not see safeguarding and the seal as mutually exclusive."
Bishop of the Diocese of Ballarat, Paul Bird welcomed the formal response and noted there were some recommendations the Diocese was unable to directly act upon, but which had been referred on.
He said they were waiting on a response from the Holy See to a question they had posed with regard to the seal of confession.
“In the case of a child who reports sexual abuse, the Royal Commission has asked that the Australian Bishops seek clarification from the Holy See as to whether this information would be included in the seal of confession, or whether a priest would be free to report such a disclosure.”
“I believe there is good reason to see this as not included in the seal of confession because the seal essentially refers to confidentiality for a penitent who confesses their sins,” the Bishop said.
“In the case where a penitent might confess their own sin of child abuse, at present the law in Victoria recognises the confidentiality of religious confession.”
“In my view, to change the law to remove this confidentiality would not make children any safer. It would simply guarantee that an offender would never confess such a crime, so removing this confidentiality would not help the safe-guarding of children,” Bishop Bird said.
The Bishop said the Diocese was in the process of implementing several other changes, including the formation of a diocesan company to operate schools on behalf of parishes. Under the new structure, school principals and teachers will be employed by this diocesan company rather than by parish priests.