Priests would rather go to jail: Bishop

PRIESTS would likely go to jail rather than break the confessional seal, says Bathurst Catholic Bishop Michael McKenna.

A royal commission into child sexual abuse, announced last week, will have the power to compel priests to answer questions about what they have been told in the confessional. 

But Bishop McKenna said priests had gone to jail in the past for refusing to betray the confessional seal, though he hoped it did not come to this in Australia.

“If a priest cannot give this assurance to people who approach him for the sacrament, he cannot hear confessions,” he said.

“It is possible, but highly unlikely, that a priest would receive such specific information in confession. If he did, he would have to ask the person to speak to him outside the sacrament so that it could be properly dealt with.

“It is diocesan policy and practice that the police and ombudsman are notified of information regarding child abuse that we receive involving clergy, teachers or any workers in our church. 

“These procedures are governed by the laws of NSW and our own commitment to child protection.”

Section 127 of the Evidence Act 1995 says in regard to religious confessions ‘a person who is or was a member of the clergy of any church or religious denomination is entitled to refuse to divulge that a religious confession was made, or the contents of a religious confession made, to the person when a member of the clergy.’ 

The Act goes on to say that “religious confession” means a confession made by a person to a member of the clergy in the member’s professional capacity according to the ritual of the church or religious denomination concerned. 

However, the Royal Commission Act overrides the Commonwealth Evidence Act.

Bishop McKenna said over the past two decades there had been greater awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse of minors in society.

“We have begun to understand the extent of its devastating and lasting effects on victims and their families,” he said.

“... we have worked hard to turn good intentions to do better into strict and fair policies and procedures,” he said.

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