Laws of the Confessional v Mandatory Reporting recommended by Royal Commission on Child Sexual Abuse

Lisa Flynn, head of Shine Lawyers’ Abuse Law Department and National Special Counsel, argues that the Church should not be above the law when it comes to the mandatory reporting of child abuse, following the strong recommendation from the Royal Commission into Institutional Reponses to Child Sexual Abuse that Priests become mandatory reporters and that no exception be given for information revealed and received through the Confessional. 

Lisa Flynn

Are the laws of the confessional more important than saving children from abuse?

To protect the children of Australia from abuse, mandatory reporting legislation has been enacted in each Australian State, Territory and the Commonwealth. Current mandatory reporting laws vary across the jurisdictions as to who is obligated to report suspected child abuse. These range from all adults in the Northern Territory to other States specifying occupations with a duty of care such as teachers, doctors, public service employees and police officers among others.

For the aforementioned professionals, the law states that those who believe on reasonable grounds a child’s physical, psychological, development or emotional well-being may suffer detrimental effects due to mistreatment, must report that concern to police in the interest of protecting children everywhere.

In New South Wales the Criminal Legislation Amendment (Child Sexual Abuse) Bill 2018 creates a new criminal offence of ‘concealing child abuse’. This offence carries a maximum penalty of imprisonment for 2 years. A person is guilty of an offence for:

1. Believing or (having) reasonably ought to have known that a child abuse offence has been committed against another person and;

2. Fail(ing) to bring to the attention of NSW Police information they believed is of material assistance in apprehending or prosecuting the perpetrator.[i]

Similar legislation has been considered in other States. This legislation will capture members of the clergy who hear admissions in the confessional. They will now be in the same boat as those currently covered by mandatory reporting laws such as doctors, teachers and psychiatrists.

Recently the Catholic Church, including the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, the Acting Archbishop of Adelaide and Catholic Church leaders in NSW such as Father Michael Whelan St Patrick’s parish priest, have stated they reject the idea and Father Michael Whelan has commented ‘the state will be requiring us as Catholic priests to commit as what we regard as the most serious crime and I’m not willing to do that.’[ii] As the head of the National Abuse Law team at Shine Lawyers I find it deplorable that breaking the seal of confession is considered in the minds of these priests a more serious crime than the rape, abuse and mistreatment of vulnerable young children.

It is difficult to reconcile the Church’s position that they will not adhere to recommendations that priests report confessions of child abuse to police with recent comments made by Archbishop Mark Colderidge ‘survivors deserve justice and healing and many have bravely come forward to tell their stories’.[iii] In reality, many of these survivors may have bravely come forward and told their stories in the confessional yet cannot receive justice and cannot heal because the church leaders have considered it more important to protect the secrecy of the confessional rather than preventing further abuse to young children.

The Catholic Church wants us to believe that it has learned from the “sins of the past” and that they have taken the findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse seriously. They have come out recently supporting the National Redress Scheme – publicly holding themselves out to be committed to supporting survivors as they come forward.

All of this rhetoric is undone when their current leaders continue to put the reputation of their Church above the protection of children. This legislation is designed specifically to protect children across the country, and, as I have often stated; where the safety of children is at hand, there should be no compromises.

The strong recommendation from the Royal Commission in to Institutional Reponses to Child Sexual Abuse who heard thousands of harrowing stories of abuse within the Catholic Church, was that Priests be made mandatory reporters and that no exception be given for information revealed and received under the seal of the confessional.

While I understand the argument from the archbishops that a law enforcing full disclosure to police when a confession alludes to or references paedophilia, will limit the amount of people confessing, I also believe that concealing cases of child abuse has been detrimental to those children and only further harmed members of the Catholic congregation over decades.

The whole point of having to make these laws is because historically the Catholic Church failed to support victims and survivors when they have come forward in the past.

Legislation creating this concealment of child abuse offence is a welcome change. It demonstrates a clear stance by our governments that they will not allow child abuse to fester and hide behind the curtains of the confessional. In my view, those who choose not to report, are facilitators of child abuse and the devastating impacts that plague survivors for the rest of their lives. That is a burden heavier than most people have to carry.

Lisa Flynn, having been with Shine Lawyers for over 15 years, has worked in a variety of different legal roles, helping many clients right wrongs in their lives.  She now heads Shine Lawyers’ Abuse Law Department as National Special Counsel, helping survivors of abuse bring claims against the institutions, organisations or individuals responsible. For Lisa, it really is a privilege to be able to stand for her courageous clients, who have had to overcome many personal challenges often in the face of great adversity.

Her work is about giving survivors of abuse a voice, and achieving what is important for them to move forward, whether that be financial assistance, an apology or an acknowledge of what they have been through. Lisa’s experience working in a variety of different legal roles has granted her a great understanding of the needs of her clients and her people, something Lisa is devoutly passionate about.

Lisa enjoys working closely with her legal team to ensure they are delivering consistent quality outcomes for every single client, ensuring they get the justice they deserve. Outside her daily work, Lisa is a dogged advocate for reform. An integral force behind the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual abuse, Lisa and her team assisted hundreds of survivors to give evidence and share their stories.

[i] S316A, Criminal Legislation Amendment (Child Sexual Abuse) Bill 2018 (NSW).
[ii] Sydney Morning Herald, (accessed 23 July 2018).
[iii] Archdiocese of Brisbane, (accessed 23 July 2018).