An Australian inquiry into child abuse could rock the Roman Catholic Church.
The panel on Friday called on the church to repeal its celibacy requirement for priests, and said clergy should face prosecution if they fail to report evidence of pedophilia heard in the confessional.
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institution Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released its 17-volume report and made almost 200 recommendations following a five-year investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions responded to sexual abuse of children in Australia over 90 years.
The Royal Commission is the country’s highest form of inquiry and the voluminous report it produced followed testimony from more than 8,000 survivors of child sex abuse.
Sixty-two percent of those abused in religious institutions were Catholic, the study found. Catholicism is the largest denomination in majority-Christian Australia.
“We have concluded that there were catastrophic failures of leadership of Catholic Church authorities over many decades,” the report said.
Among the recommendations, the commission recommends that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference ask the Vatican to repeal the mandatory celibacy requirement for the clergy and make it instead a voluntary choice. Although finding that celibacy was not a direct cause of child sexual abuse by the clergy, it was a contributing factor, the panel said.
"We have concluded that there were catastrophic failures of leadership of Catholic Church authorities over many decades."
The report reads: “We conclude that there is an elevated risk of child sex abuse where compulsorily celibate male clergy or religious have privileged access to children in certain types of Catholic institutions, including schools, residential institutions and parishes.”
In another recommendation, the Australian bishops should also ask the Vatican whether the information heard about sexual child abuse in confessions is covered by the seal of secrecy and therefore cannot be reported to the authorities.
“We recommend that canon law be amended so that the ‘pontifical secret’ does not apply to any aspect of allegations or canonical disciplinary processes relating to child sexual abuse,” the report read.
The commission proposed making failure to report child sexual abuse a criminal offense. Clerics would not be exempt from being charged, even if said in the confessional.
But Archbishop Denis Hart, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, pushed back against the commission’s suggestions, saying the changes would have a “significant impact” on how the church operates.
He reportedly said that the seal of the confessional was “inviolable” and “can’t be broken,” but added that he would try to encourage a person who confessed about child abuse to admit their crimes to the police.
“I would feel terribly conflicted, and I would try even harder to get that person outside confessional, but I cannot break the seal,” he said, according to the Guardian. “The penalty for any priest breaking the seal is excommunication.”
He added that although “there are real values in celibacy,” the Australian Catholic leaders will put the celibacy question to the pope.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.