Catholic Archbishop: 'I'd Rather Go to Prison Than Report Child Abuse to Police'
'There are some matters which are of a higher order, things to do with God'
One of the highest-ranking officials in the Catholic Church has stated that he would "rather go to prison" than report pedophilia to police.
Australia's most powerful clergy, Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart, says he's prepared to be jailed for failing to report child sex abuse by pedophile priests.
He made the shocking statement in response to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse saying there should be "no excuse, protection nor privilege" for clergy who failed to alert police of abuse.
Hart insisted that sexual abuse was "a spiritual encounter with God through the priest" and was "of a higher order" than criminal law.
A new report by the commission proposed 85 sweeping changes to the criminal justice system and recommended that priests face criminal charges for failing to report serious crimes such as sexual abuse to the police.
As the law currently stands, clergy are not legally obliged to report crimes to the police and disciplinary proceedings for criminal activity by members of the Catholic Church are handled internally by Canon law, which operates independently of the regular legal procedure.
Following an investigation by the commission, officials believe that the Catholic Church is using "confessional confidentiality" as a cover for not reporting child sex abuse to the authorities.
"We understand the significance of religious confession - in particular, the inviolability of the confessional seal to people of some faiths, particularly the Catholic faith", said the report.
"However, we heard evidence of a number of instances where disclosures of child sexual abuse were made in religious confession, by both victims and perpetrators.
"We are satisfied that confession is a forum where Catholic children have disclosed their sexual abuse and where clergy have disclosed their abusive behavior in order to deal with their own guilt."
Archbishop Hart, who's also the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, argued that the confessional seal should remain protected from the law, saying in a statement:
"It is a fundamental part of the freedom of religion, and it is recognized in the law of Australia and many other countries. It must remain so here in Australia.
"Outside of this, all offenses against children must be reported to the authorities, and we are absolutely committed to doing so."
"I've said that I would.
"I believe that this is an absolutely sacrosanct communication of a higher order."
"I would go to extreme lengths outside of the confessional to make sure that the law was observed.
"But there are some matters which are of a higher order, things to do with God."
His stance was backed by other high-profile clerics, including his Brisbane counterpart Mark Coleridge and priest and lawyer Frank Brennan, who he said he would "conscientiously refuse to comply with the law" if it was changed.
Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Father Brennan suggested requiring clerics to report abuse allegations would make children less safe because it "may take away the one possibility that a sex offender will repent and turn himself in".
But lawyer Vivian Walker, who has represented child sex abuse victims, welcomed the commission's recommendations.
"I think it's about time the Catholic Church was dragged out of the dark ages," she said.
"We can no longer think about sexual offending against children as some kind of forgivable sin."
In its submission to the commission, the Catholic Church's Trust Justice and Healing Council argued requiring priests to disclose information heard during confession would undermine freedom of religion.
“The whole concept of confession in the Catholic Church is built on repentance, forgiveness, and penance,” said Frances Sullivan, the council's chief executive.
"Part of this forgiveness process, certainly in the case of a child sex-abuser, would normally require they turn themselves in to the police."
But the commission's report stressed:
"The right to practice one’s religious beliefs must accommodate civil society’s obligation to provide for the safety of all and, in particular, children’s safety from sexual abuse.
"Reporting information relevant to child sexual abuse to the police is critical to ensuring the safety of children."
Australia's Parliament will decide whether to enact the changes contained in the report.
Archbishop Hart's predecessor at the Diocese of Melbourne, Cardinal George Pell, is due to face trial on multiple sex charges later this year.