It sends an important message that we have decided to put the rights of children first — Sheradyn Holderhead
ENDING priests’ legally sanctioned ability to keep secret reports and suspicions of child abuse is a courageous and controversial move.
But to be frank, when talking to victims, advocates and experts about how to tackle the absolute blight on our society that is child abuse, shattering the seal of the confessional is not often raised.
That does not mean the South Australian Parliament’s decision to axe protections long afforded to religious leaders for information gleaned under the “seal of the confessional” is any less significant.
What is constantly called for is ending the culture of cover-up, forgiveness and, in some cases, acceptance of the abuse of children in religious and other institutions including state care.
By refusing to accept that anyone who has a responsibility to the care of children should be afforded an exemption to report suspected abuse to the relevant authorities sends an important message that we, as a community, have decided to put the rights of children first.
It is also a stern warning to paedophiles that they have nowhere to hide.
When asked if, as a Catholic, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull believed this issue should be embraced by the church, his response summed it up perfectly: “The safety of children should always be put first. We know, thanks to the Royal Commissioners’ work, that in far, far too many cases, it wasn’t.”
Speaking to former SA Attorney-General John Rau this week about why he decided to include it as part of the state’s rewrite of child protection laws his response was equally as simple: “It was the right thing to do.”
It’s also the reason why, at the time when the legislation passed in July last year, neither the then Labor Government nor the Liberal Opposition, which supported the move, made any song and dance about it. In the minds of both Mr Rau and then shadow Attorney-General Vickie Chapman it was an easy decision.
It’s unfortunate that the Catholic Church does not see it that way. Caught unaware that the exemption was no longer enshrined in legislation, which means that as of October 1 priests will be required by law to report information about the abuse of children or face a $10,000 fine, the Adelaide Archdiocese is considering its options.
When asked directly if priests would be told to comply with the law, a statement from acting Adelaide Archbishop Greg O’Kelly was provided, in which he said the change had “much wider implications for the Catholic Church and the practice of our faith”.
“We were unaware of this change and the implications are now being considered,” he said.
Surely, after the five-year Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the answer should be a resounding “yes”.
The Commission called for the exemption to be axed because it found many of the religious institutions had cultures that discouraged reporting of child sexual abuse.
The confessional seal in the Catholic Church was found to be an institution-wide barrier to reporting child sexual abuse to an external authority.
This was despite findings it was used as a forum to disclose child sexual abuse, both by children subject to abuse and by perpetrators of abuse. In 2014 the Anglican Church gave priests in Australia the option of breaking the confidentiality of confessions without disastrous effects.
Full disclosure: I am not religious and I accept that practising Catholics can argue that I, therefore, have a limited understanding of the importance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I fully believe that it is a fundamental right for a person to be able to freely practise their religion in accordance with their beliefs.
There is a slippery slope argument that can be made that by accepting the shattering the seal for this issue, where will it end? But we have to make a choice. Is the right of a child to be safe a lesser right?
As Mr Turnbull said, children – who are society’s most vulnerable and do not enjoy many other rights which are afforded to adults – must be the priority.