Australian priests who fail to report suspected abuse, even if they hear about it from within the confession box, could face criminal charges.
In a marked challenge to canon law, Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has recommended all states make it an offence to fail to report child sex abuse in an institutional setting, AP reports.
Considered highly confidential within the Church, priests are currently forbidden from disclosing anything they hear in confession. If imposed, the commission's recommendation would force them to choose between church or state law.
'The right to practise one's religious beliefs must accommodate civil society's obligation to provide for the safety of all and, in particular, children's safety from sexual abuse,' a report released on Monday read.
'Institutions directed to caring for and providing services for children, including religious institutions, must provide an environment where children are safe from sexual abuse. Reporting information relevant to child sexual abuse to the police is critical to ensuring the safety of children.'
Justifying it's conclusion, the commission said it understood the role and importance of confession for the Catholic Church but said it had heard of cases where abusers had confessed their activities to clergy only to re-offend and seek forgiveness again.
Laws across Australia and indeed the rest of the world vary with some states considering information gleaned in religious confession to be privileged and so exempt from reporting requirements.
But if imposed the new reporting mandate would punish anyone who knew, suspected or even should have suspected an adult linked to their institution was abusing a child, and did not report it to the police.
Outside Australia courts around the world have grappled with whether religious confession should be privileged.
For example in the US state of Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruled that priests did not have to tell authorities after hearing evidence of child abuse during confession.
However in Ireland the legal requirement to report knowledge of crimes against children makes no exemption for priests.
In the UK a spokeswoman for the Catholic Church in England and Wales told Christian Today priests strongly encourage the confessor to report crimes to the police but said the 'seal of confession is absolute' and so no matter the concern, priests would never report the contents of any confession.