Administrator delegate Father Philip Marshall said the Church did not consider itself to be above the law and fully acknowledged that the laws of the State must be obeyed.
The Archdiocese strongly supports any enhancement of child protection legislation in South Australia, but legislating to remove the exemption for the confessional seal had serious implications for members of the Catholic community and the practise of their faith which need to be considered.
He said what was needed now was respectful dialogue with the Government, the community and the Church authorities. The Archdiocese is writing to the Attorney General Vicki Chapman and also discussing the issue at a national Church level.
“We are between a rock and a hard place – the rock of our total commitment to the safety of children and the hard place of our sacred sacramental trust,” Fr Marshall said.
“We cannot simply abandon this trust, nor do we in South Australia have the power to do it on our own. We have to engage in a conversation that tries to find a way through both the civil legislation and the millennia old beliefs of the global Church, in order to achieve the goals of both.
“As it stands, this conflict with the sacred theology of the Church restricts a person’s right to practise their religious beliefs and for that reason we need to work our way through this,” he said.
“Freedoms of conscience, thought, speech, assembly, religious belief and practice are basic human rights, long recognised in international law, to some extent in Australian domestic law, and more broadly in Australian culture; not to recognise confessional privilege goes against these long standing norms.”
Bishop Greg O’Kelly SJ said the sanctity of the confessional was not incompatible with child protection and ensuring our schools and parishes are safe. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
“As we have said on many occasions, child protection is at the forefront of everything we do and these are not just words. It can be seen, and is practised, in all of our institutions and especially in our schools.”
“At the same time, the ability to practise the rite of reconciliation is central to our people’s faith and we need to do everything we can to ensure that a sensible solution is found.”
The removal of the exemption in South Australia has been followed by similar moves in the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania, following the release of the Federal Government’s response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Federal Government flagged the seal of confession as an issue that needed to be dealt with at a State level.
The matter has also been raised at a national level with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference expressing their concern to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about his comments regarding removing confessional privilege.
In a letter to Mr Turnbull, Archbishop Mark Coleridge and Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP said they had “grave concerns” about these comments. While reinforcing the paramount importance of the safety of children and young people, they said removing priest-penitent privilege from the law and requiring mandatory reporting of confessions would either have “no effect on child safety or will actually make children less safe”.
The NSW Government has deferred changing this aspect of its legislation until further consideration.
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