Archbishop Mark Coleridge at St Stephen's Cathedral. Picture: Tara Croser
Archbishop Mark Coleridge at St Stephen's Cathedral. Picture: Tara Croser

Moves to smash church celibacy, confession

A FIVE-year royal commission into institutional child abuse has ordered the Catholic Church to abandon its central tenets - compulsory celibacy and the confessional - after exposing decades of widespread sexual abuse.

Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge says the Catholic community felt deeply humiliated by the "appalling extent of the abuse'' and the "gross failure of Church leaders to deal ... with allegations''.

Senior church members have expressed caution about some of the commission's key recommendations that would force it to turn its back on centuries of tradition.

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Denis Hart said the bishops would take the royal commission's recommendations "very very seriously" and present them to the Holy See.

He said the seal of confession was non-negotiable and could never be broken, and also rejected the idea of voluntary celibacy.

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher said changing rules around confession would not prevent future abuse.

"Killing off confession is not going to help anybody," he said. "This Catholic and Orthodox practice is always entirely confidential and I think any proposal to effectively stop the practice of confession in Australia would be a real hurt to all Catholics and Orthodox Christians and I don't think would help any young person.''

He also rejected the idea of voluntary celibacy.

"We know very well institutions who have celibate clergy and institutions that don't have celibate clergy both face this problem,'' he said.

Archbishop Coleridge would not be drawn on celibacy or the confessional, but said it was clear "institutional change'' was required.

He announced two working groups - one to examine church governance and another to review the royal commission's recommendations.

"This will mean an ongoing transformation of our procedures and protocols in the area of safeguarding,'' he said. "We'll also need cultural change ... to incorporate greater transparency and accountability in the governance of the Church. Sexual abuse of the young in Catholic institutions and its handling by Church leaders has been a colossal failure; and I can only express an acute sense of shame and apologies profoundly to all who have suffered.''

The introduction of voluntary celibacy and mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse detailed in the confessional are two of 409 recommendations made by the royal commission, which exposed the national tragedy of the sexual abuse of children for decades in Australia's most trusted institutions.

The commission said while compulsory celibacy was not a direct cause of child sexual abuse, it "contributed" to the crime by leading to sexual dysfunction, childish interests and behaviour.

The Catholic Church was labelled the worst offender but it was not alone in being slammed by the commission, which said institutions from major churches, schools, churches, out-of-home care, sporting and recreational clubs to Defence Force establishments had been guilty of "heinous" failures.

It called for stronger mandatory reporting laws and a federal minister for child safety. It also wants abusers stripped of any honours and a national memorial to recognise the tens of thousands of children sexually abused in more than 4000 institutions.

"But based on the information before us, the greatest number of alleged perpetrators and abused children were in Catholic institutions," the damning report said.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczcuk said the Government would consider the Commission's recommendations in detail and identify areas for reform and improvement.

The commission said its harrowing hearings involving 15,000 survivors over five years had shown that abuse was not just the fault of a "few rotten apples".

"Society's major institutions have seriously failed," the commission said.