Catholic Archbishop Says He'd Rather Go To Jail Than Report Child Abuse Heard In Confession

"[I]f there is a law that says that I have to disclose it, then yes, I will conscientiously refuse to comply with the law." 

By Eric Shorey

The archbishop of the archdiocese of Melbourne, Denis Hart, has made a controversial public statement about his refusal to report child abuse, according to The Guardian and The New York Times

“I believe [confession] is an absolute sacrosanct communication of a higher order that priests by nature respect,” Hart said in an interview with ABC radio 774 in Melbourne, in which he affirmed that he would rather be imprisoned than report on child abuse heard in confessions. “We are admitting a communication with God is of a higher order ... It is a sacred trust. It’s something those who are not Catholics find hard to understand but we believe it is most, most sacred and it’s very much part of us.”

“I think priests are men who are very carefully trained. Priests in my diocese in Melbourne are very conscious of the difficulties of the present situation," he added. “We want to be faithful to God and faithful to our vows, but we do want to be responsible citizens, and we’re totally committed to that.”

Hart was responding to a report from the child sex abuse royal commission, which called for reforms and the potential criminalization of failures to report abuse. This would extend to information communicated during religious services.


Hart added that he would generally encourage a person coming forward with an abuse narrative to report the situation to someone (for example, a teacher, who would be manditorily required to report abuse to police) outside of the confessional.

He expressed the belief that not much of “anything would ever happen” today. Reports on the widespread abuse within the Catholic church suggest otherwise.

Confession, says Hart, is “perhaps the only opportunity where a person who has offended or a child who has been hurt can have the opportunity for broader advice."

“The law does and always has protected certain categories of intimate professional relationships," said Attorney General George Brandis, who admitted he had not yet read the report that sparked the comments.

“[W]e heard evidence of a number of instances where disclosures of child sexual abuse were made in religious confession, by both victims and perpetrators," reads the report. "We are satisfied that confession is a forum where Catholic children have disclosed their sexual abuse and where clergy have disclosed their abusive behaviour in order to deal with their own guilt ... We heard evidence that perpetrators who confessed to sexually abusing children went on to reoffend and seek forgiveness again.”

Some among the clergy are agreeing with Hart. Father Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest and professor of law at the Australian Catholic University, said, "[I]f there is a law that says that I have to disclose it, then yes, I will conscientiously refuse to comply with the law... All I can say is that in 32 years no one has ever come near me and confessed anything like that. And instituting such a law, I say, simply reduces rather than increases the prospect that anyone ever will come and confess that to me."

The royal commission Hart was addressing had concluded 7 percent of Catholic priests in Australia had been accused of sexually abusing children between 1950 and 2010.

[Photo: Sky News Australia]

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