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Despite scandals, Australia’s Catholic Church stands firm against reporting child abuse revealed in confession

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, speaks alongside Sister Monica Cavanagh, president of Catholic Religious Australia, during a news conference Friday in Sydney. (Peter Rae/Australian Associated Press/AP)

In Australia, sex abuse in the Catholic Church has been so pervasive that thousands of people may be eligible for compensation. A five-year national inquiry into the abuse found that 7 percent of Australia's Catholic priests were accused of abusing children between 1950 and 2010.

But on Friday, leaders from Australia's Catholic Church said they would not mandate priests who are told about acts of child abuse and pedophilia during the sacrament of confession to share that information with any other parties, including police.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had recommended that the Catholic Church consult with the Holy See to determine whether, if a child informs a priest during confession that they have been sexually abused, it is covered by the seal of confession. The same recommendation also sought clarification on whether, if one admits to perpetrating abuse of a child, “absolution can and should be withheld until they report themselves to civil authorities."

It was one of many recommendations the commission offered to the church — of which Australian Catholic leaders say they plan to adopt about 98 percent. But breaking the confessional seal? Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who serves as president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, told reporters on Friday that it's an absolute no.

“Australian priests and the lay faithful are deeply committed to both child safety and the seal of confession, which we hold to be inviolable,” Coleridge said. “This isn't because we regard ourselves as being above the law, or because we don't think the safety of children is supremely important — we do. But we don't accept that safeguarding and the seal are mutually exclusive."

The Catholic Church in Australia rejected laws forcing priests to report child abuse when they learn about it in the confessional, setting the stage for a showdown between the country's biggest religion and the government. (Video: Reuters)

Confession is one of Catholicism's seven sacraments, and the confessional seal forbids priests from sharing any information whatsoever that they have learned during a confession. Those who break the seal face excommunication.

The decision not to break it in cases of child sexual abuse sheds light on the complicated intersection between secular law and religious practice as the church grapples with a massive international sex abuse scandal. The church insists that breaking the tradition of keeping confession sacredly private would not protect children. Some activists and victims believe it could be an opportunity to address abuse before it spreads.

Two Australian states and territories have already introduced laws that criminalize withholding abuse information disclosed to priests in confessional. “This proposed law is ill-conceived, and impracticable,” Coleridge said, according to Reuters. He also said “it won't make children safer, and it will most likely undermine religious freedom.” A similar law was passed in Ireland in 2015, though the Wall Street Journal reported it has not yet taken effect because some are concerned it would lead to false allegations.

The exposure of widespread sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy in Ireland, a once deeply conservative Catholic country, has prompted a dramatic shift in the country's relationship to the church. Pope Francis visited Ireland last weekend, earning a much smaller turnout than when Pope John Paul II visited in 1979.

Support for laws that would mandate priests to report sex abuse, even if they learned about it only in confessionals, has gained traction as the scale of institutional coverup has been revealed. The effects of the Australian investigation, coupled with revelations about child sex abuse in the United States, Chile, Ireland and elsewhere, have cast a shadow on Pope Francis's tenure as leader of the Catholic Church. Critics say he has not gone far enough to address the abuse.

In Australia, Philip Wilson, former archbishop of Adelaide, was recently found guilty of covering up child sexual abuse. He was sentenced to 12 months in prison and resigned at the end of July, though he has launched an appeal.

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