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Published: 11 September 2018

Author: Jessica Steele and Kate Malone

Mandatory reporting in confession could help catch perpetrators

Nine months after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse handed down its final report, the Catholic Church has formally announced that they have accepted all of the Royal Commission’s recommendations save for one.

The sole rejected recommendation sought to mandate that any allegations or confessions of child sexual abuse raised in confession were to be reported to police, and that a failure to do so would mean that person had committed a criminal offence.

Further, the recommendation extended to any person who knew, suspected or ought to have suspected that a child was being abused, therefore providing an incredibly wide scope for mandatory reporting for potential child sexual abuse.

Findings based on evidence

The Royal Commission based their decision on the extensive findings of the five-year investigation into the structural failings of institutions where child sexual and physical abuse was rampant and noted the numerous instances where the child or the perpetrator made disclosures during confession and no follow-up or reporting occurred, allowing the abuse to continue on for years unchecked.

The Royal Commission stressed the importance of protecting children as the utmost priority, and therefore recommended that the mandatory reporting regime carried greater importance than the protection of religious freedoms.

The Catholic Church however made their position clear early on into the Royal Commission, that they would argue against the mandatory reporting of disclosures made during confession and relied upon their right to freedom of religion, which due to its inclusion in Australia’s Constitution can have legally binding effect, and argued that a confession was a direct religious exercise and communication with God, and that the ‘seal of confession’ therefore ought to be upheld.

The Church argued that since most confessions are confidential, unless identifying details were willingly offered during the confession such the victim or perpetrator’s name, that the person hearing the information would lack any tangible information to report.

Many perpetrators could be identified

Although on the face of it this stance appears sound, it fails to take into account the strong probability that individuals will often frequent a particular Church and therefore members of the clergy will have a certain degree of familiarity with individuals, their families and their extended networks. As such, despite the confession being delivered as confidential, the recipient of the information might be in many cases able to identify the person via voice, conversation and speech mannerisms alone.

Further, the inability of the clergy confessor to identify the people involved does not necessarily eradicate the value in the report they can provide. For example, if a high number of reports are made in a particular geographic area, similarities in the disclosures made might assist with investigations, or the sheer number of reports may illuminate to authorities the possibility of a serial offender.

Covering up does not aid disclosure

In addition, the Catholic Church argues that the seal of confession in fact provides the clergy with an opportunity to protect children, by allowing for a forum in which for perpetrators and victims alike are able to disclose their abuse in a confidential setting. The Church argues that this enables them to engage with the individual and encourage them to consider counselling and self-reporting to the police. The Church argues that should mandatory reporting be put into place, both victims and perpetrators would be deterred from engaging in this forum.

This stance taken by the Catholic Church is particularly astonishing considering the sheer weight of evidence which the Royal Commission has collated which shows precisely the opposite.

Decades of abuse and decimated childhoods have only confirmed that the Catholic Church is incapable of adequately responding to child sexual abuse and are patently ineffective in responding to disclosures either from victims or perpetrators.

Their decision to uphold the seal of confession only re-establishes the veil of secrecy behind which child sexual abuse was kept hidden for so long and only hinders society’s progress in moving towards a world free from child sexual abuse and exploitation.

Postscript

The Andrew’s Government has just announced that a re-elected Labor Government would seek to implement the Royal Commission’s recommendations to make the religious ministry mandatory reporters of child abuse, and that any failure to do so would constitute a criminal offence.

This announcement is in addition to the Government’s established commitment to expanding the list of mandatory reporters to include registered psychologists, school counsellors and people working in youth justice, early childhood education and out of home care. These changes will begin taking effect over the next 18 months and are an important step forward to ensuring the horrific crimes of the clergy are not repeated in future generations.

*Jessica Steele is a final year Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Science double degree student at Monash University and works full-time as a Paralegal primarily in the Institutional Abuse Department at Ryan Carlisle Thomas.