Victorian Law Mandating Clergy to Report Child Abuse Learned About In Confession

On September 10, 2019, Victoria, Australia, became the next Australian province to pass legislation removing clergy's exemption from mandatory reporting of crimes against children when the knowledge or reasonable suspicion of such crimes came in confession.

Such legislation has previously been passed by the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia, the Northern Territory (with some ambiguity as to whether the mandatory overrides provisions in the Evidence Law), and is pending in Western Australia. Here a summary of the varied status in Australia prior to this legislation.

The legislation states that its main purposes are:

(a) to amend the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005—
(i) to include persons in religious ministry as mandatory reporters under that Act; and
(ii) to clarify that a mandatory reporter is not able to rely on the religious confession privilege in the Evidence Act 2008 to avoid the reporting requirement imposed by section 184 of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005; and
(b) to amend the Crimes Act 1958 to provide that information that would be privileged under the religious confessions privilege in the Evidence Act 2008 is no longer exempt for the purposes of section 327; and
(c) to amend the Evidence Act 2008 to provide that the religious confessions privilege does not apply in proceedings for an offence against section 184 of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 or section 327(2) of the Crimes Act 1958

Most cases in which a priest in confession gains knowledge of child abuse are likely to be when the victim himself at the time or later as an adult speaks of the abuse in confession. In such cases, the confessor could ask the victim who has come to him in confession for permission to release him from the seal of confession, to tell others what he has told him. If the penitent does not want that, the Victorian law would in many cases not require reporting the abuse, as this can be, according to the Crimes Act, a "reasonable excuse" for not reporting: "

A person does not contravene subsection (2) [mandating reporting of sexual offences by adults against children] if
– (a) the information forming the basis of the person's belief that a sexual offence has been committed came from the victim of the alleged offence, whether directly or indirectly; and
(b) the victim was of or over the age of 16 years at the time of providing that information to any person; and
(c) the victim requested that the information not be disclosed.

In two types of case the law would require reporting that is incompatible with the sacramental seal or at any rate church law and teaching on confession:

(1) When the person who has committed abuse confesses it, and does not release the priest from the seal by giving him permission to report it, as reporting the abuse in this case would be a direct violation of the seal.

(2) When the penitent is a victim under 16 years of age, speaks of the abuse as a matter of guilt on his part, and does not want the priest to tell anyone else about it. For the confessor to reveal it in this case would also be a direct violation of the sacramental seal. If the penitent only mentions it within confession, but not as a matter of sin, to report it might not be a direct violation of the seal, but certainly seems contrary to church law as interpreted in the Note of the Apostolic penitentiary on the importance of the internal forum and the inviolability of the sacramental seal, the principal points of which I summarized in the preceding post.