18 Jun 2018

Priests who don’t report sex abuse confessions could be fined

11:00 pm on 18 June 2018

Some Catholic priests across the Tasman will soon be facing a $10,000 fine if someone confesses child sex abuse to them and they don't report it to the police.

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Stock image. Photo: 123RF

Both South Australia and ACT have law changes coming to crack open the confessional.

It is expected that the confession-breaking laws could spread nationwide, as part of the federal government's recently released response to the Royal Commission into child sex abuse's recommendations.

An adviser to the Royal Commission, Professor Des Cahill, said the implications extended to New Zealand.

"I think they would be watching very carefully. My impression in New Zealand is the veil has not yet been lifted on abuse," he said. However, Prof Cahill added he would expect somewhat lower rates in this country than the 7 percent of abuse priests found elsewhere.

Any major changes in Australia that the Vatican allowed, could flow through to here, he said.

Canberra has adopted 104 of the commission's 122 recommendations and is now working to harmonise laws across its states and territories on the remaining 18.

The church has not released its response to the recommendations, sparking anger and predictions the church won't cooperate.

The commission found the confessional and mandatory celibacy contributed to both the abuse and to the church covering it up, by fostering secrecy.

But the Australian bishops have hit back.

"There's nothing to suggest that legal abolition of the seal will help in that regard," the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge said.

Voluntary celibacy for priests is another one of the commission's recommendations.

"That's a huge change," Prof Cahill said.

"There are signs now appearing that the Vatican is seriously considering in some countries at least to change to a system of optional celibacy."

These included Brazil and Europe where priest numbers had fallen steeply.

Voluntary celibacy "would be a very significant factor in lowering even further the rate" of clerical child sex abuse, he told RNZ.

"My fear is that at the moment there's virtually no offending, but after this has all blown over in two or three decades if the fundamental cultural issues are not addressed and changed, it will reappear."

The tumult for the Catholic Church extends to Chile where police raids have netted church records related to child abuse, and all the country's bishops offered to resign over the growing abuse scandal. Three have quit so far.

In New Zealand, it appears likely the upcoming Royal Commission of Inquiry into the historical abuse of children in residential state care will not be expanded to cover churches.

Prof Cahill said in that case, there was precedent in the UK and the Netherlands for the church to run its own inquiry, as long as the inquiry boards were independent.

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