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Vatican can reconsider celibacy, says Melbourne Archbishop

Voluntary celibacy can be considered by the Catholic Church, Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart has acknowledged in the wake of the royal commission into child sexual abuse.

But the Archbishop has ruled out any change to breaking the seal of confession to report allegations of abuse that may be revealed by a priest or a victim.

The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Dennis Hart says churches will support for the introduction of a redress scheme following a report from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

His comments follow the release on Friday of the royal commission’s final report, which revealed that 61.8 per cent of the cases reported involved the Catholic Church.

The report suggests the Australian Catholic Church should seek permission from the Vatican to introduce voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy.

Confession cannot be broken: Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Denis Hart. 

It also recommends that religious ministers be brought into line with police, doctors and nurses who are all obliged by law to report sexual abuse. This would include any abuse disclosures made to clergy in confession.

Speaking in Melbourne on Friday afternoon, Archbishop Hart – who heads the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference – repeatedly apologised, and expressed deep regret for the “shameful” culture of “secrecy and self-protection” that caused unnecessary suffering for many victims and their families.

He said he would do anything in his power to ensure any reports of abuse made in the confessional were followed up outside of that forum, but said he could not defy canon law and break the seal of confession, and did not expect the Holy See would ever consider changing that sacrament.

“I cannot see that the sacrosanct nature of confession would ever change,” Archbishop Hart told Fairfax Media after the press conference.

Sydney Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher.

Sydney Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher.

“With regard to the discipline of celibacy, this is a matter of a different order, it’s a discipline which the church can change,” he said.

The Royal Commission also urged that the Vatican be asked to change canon laws to call child sexual abuse a crime rather than a moral failing.

The commission's report was welcomed by survivors and their families.

The commission’s report was welcomed by survivors and their families.

Other recommendations are that:

  • Catholic priests no longer have any role to play in the employment of principals and teachers in Catholic schools;
  • Australian Catholic bishops request the Holy See to amend canon law so that all bishops across Australia are required to report child sex allegations to authorities including police, and not just bishops in NSW and Victoria where bishops can be charged with an offence for not reporting;
  • Australian bishops take the lead by requesting the Holy See to lift time limits on church investigations of child sex allegations.

The commission has made 409 recommendations to protect children from sexual abuse, after chairman Justice Peter McClellan handed over the final report of the five-year inquiry to Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove on Friday.

Archbishop Hart said the bishops would take the royal commission’s recommendations seriously and present them to the Holy See.

Asked how so many cases of abuse could happen when such behaviour was so antithetical to the church’s teachings, Archbishop Hart identified the power invested in individual priests as a factor.

“I certainly agree with the royal commission that suggested that as priests we have a high, high responsibility and we’re above everyone else,” he said.

“That not only gives us a wrong impression of ourselves, but it devalues other people and then people just become things and objects.

“Perhaps the lessening of our status mightn’t be a bad thing, because it makes us be more authentic in our relationships, not only within the church, but in the society in which we live, within our families and communities.”

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher said that changing mandatory reporting of abuse that came to light through confession was “a distraction”.

“While we are yet to study what the commission has had to say about that, I think everyone understands that this Catholic and Orthodox practice of confession is always confidential,” he said.

“Any proposal to stop the practice of confession in Australia would be a real hurt to all Catholics and Orthodox Christians.”

He added that confession rarely unearthed abuse and, on the rare occasion it did, might present an opportunity to move the offender to self-report.

He struck a similar tone around the report’s recommendation that celibacy should be voluntary for clergy.

“We know very well that institutions who have celibate clergy and institutions that don’t have celibate clergy both face these problems,” he said.

“We know very well that this happens in families that are certainly not observing celibacy.

“It’s an issue for everybody, celibate or not, how we make sure children are treated appropriately and kept safe.”

He promised the royal commission’s 17-volume final report would not “sit on a shelf”.

He said the report ushered in a period of “very serious self-examination”.

❏ Support is available for those who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800; beyondblue 1300 224 636; National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732; Men’s Referral Service 1300 766 491.

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