Abuse victim Darren Chalmers sits on a bench with numerous placards outside the venue for Australia's Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney March 2016. CNS photo/David Gray, Reuters

Commission questions priest celibacy and seal of confession in child-abuse cases

  • December 20, 2017

MELBOURNE, Australia – An Australian Royal Commission has recommended that the Vatican consider lifting the seal of the confessional in child-abuse cases and allowing voluntary celibacy for priests.

After receiving nearly 26,000 emails, and more than 42,000 phone calls from concerned Australians, the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released its 17-volume final report Dec. 15.

Among 400 recommendations, 20 were aimed specifically at the Catholic Church, whose leaders spent three weeks in February testifying at a “Catholic wrap-up.”

One recommendation was for the Australian bishops to work with the Holy See to determine if the absolute secrecy concerning matters discussed during confession also applies to a child confessing he or she has been abused sexually. The report also said the Church should consider if “absolution can and should be withheld” until a person confessing to perpetrating child sexual abuse reports the crime to police.

Another recommendation called for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to request the Holy See consider introducing voluntary celibacy for diocesan priests. Several of the recommendations related to the bishops’ conference working with the Holy See to change the Code of Canon Law “to create a new canon or series of canons specifically relating to child sexual abuse.”

The report called for several changes in Canon Law related to Church reporting and transparency in child-abuse cases. It also called for more thorough screening of seminary candidates.

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher and Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, conference president, said they did not see the Church changing its rules on confession.

Fisher, like most of the Australian bishops who testified to the commission, said in a Dec. 15 statement he was “appalled by the sinful and criminal activity of some clergy, religious and lay Church workers (and) I’m ashamed of the failure to respond by some Church leaders, and ... I stand ready to address any systemic issues.”

The Vatican, noting the commission’s “thorough efforts,” said the report “deserves to be studied seriously.”
A Dec. 15 statement reiterated the Vatican’s commitment to “the Catholic Church in Australia — lay faithful, religious and clergy alike — as they listen to and accompany victims and survivors in an effort to bring about healing and justice.”

Several of the commission’s recommendations aimed at improved screening and formation for religious. The commission also recommended the Vatican retain for at least 45 years documents “relating to canonical criminal cases in matters of morals, where the accused cleric has died or 10 years have elapsed from the condemnatory sentence. In order to allow for delayed disclosure of abuse by victims and to take account of the limitation periods for civil actions for child sexual abuse.”

“What now needs to be made clear by the (Australian) Church leadership is that they take these recommendations and findings seriously and that they are willing to act swiftly in implementing the findings,” said Francis Sullivan, CEO of the Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

In February, the Royal Commission said that, since 1980, seven per cent of the nation’s Catholic priests had been accused of child sexual abuse and 4,444 people reported allegations of child abuse to Church authorities.

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