The Anglican Primate says the sanctity of the confessional should be examined by the royal commission into child sexual abuse called this week by Julia Gillard, which he regards as being a decade overdue.
Dr Aspinall’s predecessor as Archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth – who lost his job as governor-general after a scandal erupted over his handling of sex-abuse cases in the diocese – also backed the inquiry.
Dr Hollingworth warned yesterday that the abuse of children was “more widespread than previously thought”, and welcomed the royal commission as an important national initiative and a means to help victims.
Dr Aspinall told The Weekend Australian that pastoral guidelines for Anglican priests already stipulated that anyone who admitted sexually abusing a child during confession would not receive forgiveness unless they agreed to go to the police.
If the penitent refused, the confession was incomplete and, arguably, the seal of the confessional would not apply.
Only specified, senior priests could hear such confessions in the Anglican Church, Dr Aspinall said. “These priests are specially trained to require the penitent to report the matter to the police and even go with them to support them while they do that,” he said.
“If they don’t do that, forgiveness will not be granted to them.”
Dr Aspinall is credited with cleaning house after taking over as Archbishop of Brisbane in 2002 in the teeth of allegations that the diocese had failed to deal properly with sex abuse cases in the 1990s under Dr Hollingworth’s leadership.
Dr Aspinall, who was later elected Primate, said the announcement of a national royal commission into child abuse came 10 years after he first asked John Howard to call such an inquiry.
“Of the nearly 3.6 million Australians who call themselves Anglican, statistically one in four women and one in eight men are victims of abuse, so it is something that affects our church on many levels,” Dr Aspinall said in a statement yesterday.
His support for the royal commission to review confessional sanctity is in sharp contrast to the position of Australia’s most senior Catholic, George Pell, who this week declared that the confessional was “inviolable”, even for murder.
The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney said he would not hear the confession of a pedophile priest if he had prior notice of it, but, were it made, the seal of the confessional would remain.
In response, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, a Catholic, said he struggled to understand how such information could not be reported to police, while federal Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten called for the royal commission to address priestly privilege. Interviewed by The Weekend Australian, Dr Aspinall said mandatory reporting of child sex abuse was policy in the Anglican Church.
He said the rite of confession was less frequently practised by Anglicans, and was different from what took place in the Catholic Church.
Senior priests had told him they hadn’t heard a confession for years, let alone one involving child sex abuse.
But he acknowledged that opinion was divided among Anglicans on what the confessional seal covered.
“Some people would say that anything said in a formal confession remains secret and sacrosanct,” Dr Aspinall said.
“Others would say, no, if the penitent has not followed through and taken the appropriate action and received forgiveness, then the confession is incomplete and the seal of confession does not apply.
“In that instance the person either reports the matter to the police themselves or the priest is free to do so.”
Asked for his personal view, Dr Aspinall said: “My view is that every instance of child sexual abuse should be reported to the police.”
In nearly 25 years as a priest, he had never been put in the predicament of hearing the confession of a child abuser.
“I don’t think I ever will, because the reality is child sex abusers hide what they do; they don’t come forward to reveal it,” Dr Aspinall said.
Pressed on what he would do if someone confessed such a crime to him and refused to have it reported to police, he admitted it would pose “a real dilemma of conscience”.
“My heartfelt conviction is that all these matters should be reported to the police,” he said.
“If I found myself in a position of having to break canon law to do it, I’m not sure what I would do. But my conscience, I think, would move me to find a way for … proper action to be taken.”
While Cardinal Pell attacked sections of the media for exaggerating the incidence of sex abuse by Catholic priests and for vilifying the church, Dr Aspinall said reporting of the issue had mainly been reasonable.
He praised the courage of victims in coming forward.
Dr Aspinall conceded that trust in the church had been affected.
“I think people are more shocked when it’s a clergy person or a church worker who engaged in this behaviour because they have very high expectations of people in the church,” he said.
“And I think that is right and proper.”