Brisbane archbishop controversially criticises new sexual assault law

Date: Jan 23, 2020

On 16 January 2020, Archbishop of Brisbane Mark Coleridge spoke out against a proposed Queensland law that would compel Roman Catholic priests in the state to report evidence of child sex abuse brought to their attention during confessions, according to The Guardian.

In particular, Coleridge argued the law would interfere with the Catholic priests’ duty to uphold the the Seal of Confession at a “vital point” in the institution’s history and allow clergy to become “agents of the state.” He further predicted that the legislation would not pass and argued that the sacrament of confession is not used in the Church to facilitate the cover-up of any potential crimes committed by priests or other clergy.

Comments criticised, echo those of other archbishops
Coleridge’s remarks on the law have since been criticised by several authority figures, including Queensland Transport Minister Mark Bailey, who said in a social media post that he was “deeply disturbed” by the comments, per the Brisbane Times.

Coleridge’s most recent comments echo those of several of his counterparts in response to similar laws that were proposed or passed in Australia’s various states and territories. In August 2019, Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli said that priests would rather choose to serve in prison than reveal any details disclosed to them in confession and break the seal of that sacrament, the Guardian reported at the time. In particular, Comensoli clarified that he and other priests would report any evidence of sexual abuse conveyed to them outside of the confessional.

(In 2010, Coleridge volunteered his own explanation into the reasons behind how the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church could have been covered up for so long, citing its focus on “sin and forgiveness rather than crime and punishment,” according to The Baltimore Sun.)

Laws enacted across Australia follow Royal Commission recommendation
The new laws are modeled after a recommendation from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse conducted from January 2013 to December 2017. They stipulate a three-year prison sentence for those who fail to report abuse, and the penalty for Catholic clergy or employees who are found to have legally failed to protect those under their purview from sexual assault is five years.

The Brisbane Times reported that the new Queensland law will further alter the Evidence Act to permit more juries to hear evidence of previous accused sex crimes, bar child sex offenders from reducing their criminal sentences by invoking their community standing and add a 14-year prison sentence for those in possession of sex dolls resembling children.

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