Catholic priests will be required to break the seal of confession in some cases after new laws passed the Australian Capital Territory's (ACT) Legislative Assembly in Canberra without amendment.
All three parties in the ACT Legislative Assembly supported the bill on 7 June to extend the mandatory reporting scheme to cover churches, including the Confessional.
The new laws will require religious organisations to report allegations, offences or convictions related to children to the ACT Ombudsman within 30 days and launch an investigation.
Writing in the Canberra Times, Archbishop Christopher Prowse of Canberra and Goulburn said that the church “shares the government’s concern to protect the safety of children and wishes to be a part of the solution”.
He added: “The draft laws are a consequence of the profound failure of the leadership of the church and the duty of care we owe to children.”
But, he said he could not support a requirement to break the seal of confession.
Archbishop Prowse said such a requirement would neither help prevent abuse nor efforts to improve the safety of children in Catholic organisations.
Pointing out that child abusers do not confess their crimes to police or to priests at Confession, he added that forcing priests to break the seal would damage the Sacrament of Confession for other Catholics.
He wrote: “Priests are bound by a sacred vow to maintain the seal of the confession. Without that vow, who would be willing to unburden themselves of their sins, seek the wise counsel of a priest and receive the merciful forgiveness of God?”
Archbishop Prowse also said that such legislation would also threaten Catholics' religious freedom.
"The government threatens religious freedom by appointing itself an expert on religious practices and by attempting to change the sacrament of confession while delivering no improvement in the safety of children," he said.
Anti-child abuse campaigner Damian De Marco told the Canberra Times that the “Catholic Church's leadership has made it clear that the protection of its religious rituals is a higher priority than protecting children in its care”.
ACT Chief Minister Gordon Ramsay said that knowing how to best treat confession “was complex”.
"The consideration of confession is an important one and a discussion which must be had with community and religious leaders.”
The new clause around the confessional will not apply until 31 March, 2019 – giving the government and the clergy time to determine how the laws will work.