Warrnambool priest says there is no evidence that breaking the seal of confession will protect children

A WARRNAMBOOL Catholic priest has questioned if breaking the seal of confession will keep children safe from paedophiles.

Father John Fitzgerald said he was surprised that so much media attention was given to the seal of confession after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared new laws could be introduced to compel priests to report crimes revealed in confession.

SACRED: Father John Fitzgerald from St Joseph's Church in Warrnambool questions whether breaking the seal of confession will protect children from sex abuse. Picture: Rob Gunstone

SACRED: Father John Fitzgerald from St Joseph's Church in Warrnambool questions whether breaking the seal of confession will protect children from sex abuse. Picture: Rob Gunstone

“Would a paedophile go to confession? I have my doubts,” he said.

Fr Fitzgerald said he agreed with the priority of ensuring the safety of children, but the integrity of confession also had to be upheld. “We have to hold both in balance,” he said.

Mr Turnbull declared the safety of children must take priority over the seal of confession in the Catholic Church and said he would deliver a national apology to survivors of child sexual abuse in October.

On Thursday South Australia became the first state to legally compel clergy to report child sex abuse. 

Under the new laws set to take effect in October, priests who hear confessions about child abuse will have a mandatory obligation to report the matter to police.

The new crime will carry a maximum $10,000 fine and will also apply to social workers, teachers, medical professionals and others in positions of authority

Fr Fitzgerald said during confession a priest could try to convince the person to go to police and turn themselves in. He said as far as he knew there was no compelling evidence to suggest that the abolition of confession would help with the safety of children.

Fr Fitzgerald said breaking the seal of confession was not a black and white issue and the church needed to keep an open dialogue with the states.

He said the church had responded to many of the recommendations from the Royal Commission and the Warrnambool parish had updated its policies and procedures to ensure a safe space for all.

He said Ballarat Diocese Bishop Paul Bird had also sought to make sure all church volunteers had a current working with children check in place. “In whatever way we can we want to help with the safety of children,” Fr Fitzgerald said.

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the safety of children was paramount for the church in Australia but any safety measures must be realistic and effective. "There's nothing to suggest that legal abolition of the seal will help in that regard," he said.

"Whatever (the) questions of religious freedom or the sheer practicability of what's proposed, the real question is will it make children any safer - and the church's answer is no." 

-With AAP