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Australian child abuse inquiry recommends end to mandatory celibacy for clergy

Report found 'catastrophic failures of leadership' in Catholic Church

Vatican Cardinal Charged

Cardinal George Pell was charged earlier this year in his native Australia with multiple counts of historical sexual abuse, becoming the highest-ranking Vatican official ever charged in the church's long-running sexual abuse scandal. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

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An Australian inquiry into child abuse recommended Friday that the Roman Catholic Church lift its demand of celibacy from clergy and that priests be prosecuted for failing to report evidence of pedophilia heard in a confessional. 

The 17-volume document from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse marks the end of one of the world's biggest inquiries into child abuse. The government will decide whether to enact its recommendations. 

'Not a case of a few rotten apples.' - Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse

The five-year investigation found "multiple and persistent failings of institutions to keep children safe, the cultures of 
secrecy and coverup, and the devastating effects child sexual abuse can have on an individual's life," the commission said in a statement. 

The report detailed tens of thousands of child victims, saying their abusers were "not a case of a few rotten apples." 

"We will never know the true number," it read. 

The inquiry spanned religious, government, educational and professional organizations, but heard many accounts alleging abuse coverups in the Australian Catholic Church, including allegations of moving priests suspected of abuse between parishes to avoid detection. 

Of survivors who reported abuse in religious institutions, more than 60 percent cited the Catholic Church, which demonstrated "catastrophic failures of leadership of Catholic Church authorities over many decades," particularly before the 1990s, the report said.

Prosecute clergy for failing to report abuse

Recommendations include the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference request that the Vatican consider introducing voluntary celibacy for clergy. 

The bishops' body should also request clarity on whether information received in the confessional that a child has been
sexually abused is covered by the seal of secrecy and whether absolution of a perpetrator should be withdrawn until the
perpetrator confesses to police. 

Catholic clerics who testified to the royal commission gave varying opinions about what, if anything, a priest could divulge about what was said in a confessional about child abuse. 

Australia Church Abuse

The final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was released Friday in Canberra following a wide-ranging investigation. (Jeremy Piper/Australian Government Royal Commission/Associated Press)

The commission's recommendations, which with interim reports total 409, include making failure to report child sexual abuse a criminal offence. Clerics would not be exempt from being charged. 

The law should exclude any existing excuse or privilege relating to a religious confessional. 

Pope Francis's former finance minister, Cardinal George Pell, testified in a video link from the Vatican in 2016 about his time as a priest and bishop in Australia. Pell this year became the most senior Catholic official to face sex offence charges. 

Through his lawyers, Pell has vowed to fight the charges of sexual assault offences. 

The commission found that the church's responses to complaints and concerns about clerics in Australia were "remarkably and disturbingly similar." 

'I cannot break the seal'

The president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Denis Hart, said many of the commission's recommendations "would have significant impact on the way the Catholic Church and others operate in Australia." 

The Vatican was already giving "serious consideration" to questions raised by the commission about the extent of the seal of the confession and whether child molesters who did not confess to police could be absolved, Hart said. 

A similar recommendation was made during Ireland's 2009 child abuse inquiry, leading to a mandatory reporting law in 2015. Some U.S. states have similar requirements. 

"I cannot break the seal. The penalty for any priest breaking the seal is excommunication; being passed out of the church," Hart said. "I revere the law of the land and I trust it, but this is a sacred, spiritual charge before God which I must honour, and I have to try and do what I can do with both." 

He said the Australian bishops would put the celibacy recommendations to the Vatican, but added: "I believe that there are real values in celibacy." 

The commission found that celibacy was not a direct cause of child sexual abuse, but was a contributing factor, especially when combined with other risk factors. 

The Vatican didn't comment on those recommendations. But church officials have previously rejected any link between celibacy and abuse, and reaffirmed the sanctity of the confessional.

The Vatican said only that the devastating findings were "thorough" and deserve to be "studied seriously." It said it was committed to helping Australian victims of pedophile priests find healing and justice.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a Catholic, recommended all Australians read the commission's report. 

"What that commission has done is exposed a national tragedy. It's an outstanding exercise in love, and I thank the commissioners and those who had the courage to tell their stories," Turnbull said.  

Catholicism is the largest denomination in majority-Christian Australia.

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