Australian Catholic Leaders Won't Break The Seal Of Confession

The Royal Commission's key recommendation to order priests to disclose confessions 'would undermine religious liberties'.

Australia's Catholic leaders have vowed to place children's safety over the reputation of the Church but formally upheld it won't lift the seal of confession to report abuse.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) and the peak body for religious orders, Catholic Religious Australia, on Friday released its formal response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, accepting 98 percent of its recommendations and vowing to end the Church's "shameful history" with action.

But, unsurprisingly, it went as far as accepting changes to secrecy rules, meaning clergy do not have to report abuse revealed in the confessional.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge. Image: AAP

ACBC President Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the key recommendation for mandatory disclosure is contrary to Catholic faith and inimical to religious liberty.

"Australian priests are committed to both child safety and the seal of confession, which we hold to be inviolable. This isn't because we regard ourselves as above the law nor because we don't think the safety of children is supremely important -- we do," he said.

"But we don't accept that safeguarding and the seal are mutually exclusive, nor do we believe that abolishing the seal will make children any safer."

The Archbishop said a perpetrator or victim may be less likely to raise abuse in confidence if the seal was undermined, also questioning its practicability.

"If I am a confessor and someone comes to me anonymously and confesses abusing a child, without identifying the victim, what am I supposed to do?" he said.

"[Tell] the police … someone whose name I don't know, who is anonymous, has confessed to abusing a child, the identity of whom I don't (know) either'.

But he reaffirmed the seal only applies to confessional "in the strict sense", saying mandatory reporting applies outside of that.

"If this were the only thing that the Catholic Church committed to from this Royal Commission, we don't think it would be much of a gesture at all in the direction of child safety," he said.

'We failed them'

Acknowledging those who "very courageously told their stories of pain and trauma" during the Royal Commission, he said the country's Catholic leaders had  failed them.

"Too many bishops failed to listen, failed to believe, and failed to act. Those failures allowed some abusers to offend again and again, with tragic and sometimes fatal consequences," he said.

"With one voice, the bishops and leaders of religious orders pledge today: Never again.

"There will be no cover up ... no transferring of people accused of abuse. There will be no placing the reputation of the Church above the safety of children."

The Royal Commission made 26 specific recommendations for reform in the Catholic Church.

It will be up to the Pope and his advisers to accept those more far-reaching recommendations, including amending decades-old canon law to make child sexual abuse a canonical crime rather than a "moral failing".

Archbishop Coleridge said voluntary celibacy for some clergy is being examined, but was an unlikely possibility.

READ MORE: Pope Breaks Silence On Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis

Pope Francis addressed the clergy sexual abuse crises earlier this month. Image: Getty

Josephite Sister Monica Cavanagh, president of Catholic Religious Australia, said the Church has already begun making changes to "a number of practices", including the screening and formation of training priests, religious sisters and brothers.

"Today is not about us saying, 'we will do the bare minimum'... today is about telling parents and telling the community that the Church has learned, it is changing and it will continue to change," she said.

But Archbishop Coleridge conceded some had been "too slow and too timid".

He said the Catholic Church's response was a "plan of action" and a "promise of transparency and accountability" to ensure all people are "generally safe" in all Catholic settings.

Calls from the Church's key Royal Commission adviser for an Ombudsman that would investigate complaints and make recommendations to improve systems and appropriate use of power, are being negotiated, according to the archbishop.

"Above all, we want to be more accountable and transparent within our governance. If this would help bring it about, we would be supportive of that," Sister Cavanagh said.