Anglican shift on confessions puts abuse victims’ interests first

The Anglican Church has responded to the Royal Commission by allowing priests in some circumstances to report confessions of sexual abuse. AAP/Jeremy Piper

The Australian Anglican Church has put the interests of children and victims of crime ahead of tradition and doctrine. Priests who hear confessions about serious criminal offences, including child abuse, will no longer be required to keep the confession confidential.

At the tri-annual sitting of General Synod – the church’s “parliament” - Anglican Church leaders debated the church’s response to the Royal Commission into the Institutional Handling of Child Sexual Abuse. A particular thorny issue for the church is the confessional seal. Under church law, priests who heard private ritual confessions of sins were required to keep all confessions confidential, regardless of the nature of the confession.

The 1989 Canon Concerning Confession states:

If any person confess his or her secret and hidden sins to an ordained minister for the unburdening of conscience and to receive spiritual consolation and ease of mind, such minister shall not at any time reveal or make known any crime or offence or sin so confessed and committed to trust and secrecy by that person without the consent of that person.

Acting on abuse as a crime

The Anglican Church has revised its position. Priests will be permitted to break the seal of confession in some circumstances. The Canon Concerning Confessions 1989 (Amendment) Canon 2014 states that:

… where a person confesses that he or she has committed a serious offence an ordained minister is only obliged to keep confidential the serious offence so confessed where the ordained minister is reasonably satisfied that the person has reported the serious offence to the police.

The seal of confession will no longer apply to confessions of serious offences. This includes criminal offences involving child abuse, child exploitation material or crimes punishable by life imprisonment or imprisonment for five or more years.

The changes will not take effect immediately. The Anglican Church in Australia is made up of 23 separate dioceses. Each diocese will need to adopt the changes individually. Most are expected to do so before the end of the year.

In 1215, Pope Innocent III made confession compulsory. Five centuries after the split from Rome, it is a voluntary ritual for Anglicans.

The impact of the change in church law is likely to be primarily symbolic. Anglicans are not required to attend private confession, unlike Roman Catholics.

However, private ritual confession has a long history in the church. Pope Innocent III introduced annual compulsory private confession in 1215. The Church of England retained the ritual on separation from Rome.

What the change does is signal to the church community and the wider Australian public that the church takes the issue of child sexual abuse seriously. As Archbishop Driver put it:

What this [church] legislation is doing has made it absolutely clear that that’s what the church expects and also permits, so clergy are not put in the position of feeling that they’re breaking a sacred vow.

In the current climate anything that has an element of secrecy, especially in relation to child abuse, is likely to be viewed as a cover-up. By allowing priests to break the seal of confession for serious offences the church is making it clear that it will no longer allow the confessional seal to be used as an excuse to hide or cover up abuse.

The new rule does not require priests to report confessions of serious offences to the police or other authorities. The decision is left to the discretion of the priest. However, it is now at least an option. It is a step in the right direction.

Inconsistency in state laws remains

There are few requirements in the civil law for priests to report child sexual offences. All states and territories have mandatory child abuse reporting laws. Who is required to report varies from state to state.

South Australia is the only state to require priests to report child abuse. However, there is an exemption for information a priest receives as part of a confession.

The Royal Commission has not yet considered whether mandatory reporting laws should be extended to clergy. A Victorian Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and other Non-Governmental Organisations recommended against extending mandatory reporting to priests. The committee was of the opinion that:

… extending mandatory welfare reporting would not necessarily ensure an appropriate investigation of suspected child abuse, particularly where the abuse is committed by religious personnel.

In New South Wales and Victoria it is a crime not to report a crime punishable by life imprisonment or imprisonment for five or more years.

In New South Wales the police must attain permission from the attorney-general to prosecute a priest for failing to report a serious offence. In 2012, Fr Tom Brennan, a Catholic priest, was charged for failing to report sexual abuse of children by John Denham. Fr Brennan died before the case could be tried.

In Victoria, only a person who also “accepts any benefit for not disclosing that information” can be charged. The Victorian inquiry recommended that this requirement be removed.

In Victorian, New South Wales, Tasmanian and federal courts, a priest may refuse to give evidence about information he or she received during a private confession.

In Western Australian, Northern Territory, South Australian and Queensland courts priests are not exempt from giving evidence about what they have heard in a confession. Failure to give evidence, if required, can result in a priest being held in contempt of court.

In due course, the Royal Commission will need to consider if any of these laws need to change.