Pell defends confessional silence over sins of fathers

THE Premier, Barry O'Farrell, has questioned the Catholic Church's rules exempting priests from having to report admissions of sexual abuse made in Confession, as the country's most senior Catholic, George Pell, defended the church's handling of paedophilia in its ranks.

On Tuesday a defiant Cardinal Pell welcomed the announcement of a national royal commission into abuse and said he believed it would help decipher real claims from ''significant exaggeration''.

''We'll answer for what we've done,'' Cardinal Pell said, adding that he expected to be called to give evidence. ''We're not trying to defend the indefensible.''

But he hit out at what he described as a ''campaign'' by the media and ''general smears'' against the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Pell highlighted reporting procedures, particularly the 1997 Towards Healing protocols, but defended the continuing sanctity of the confessional.

''The seal of Confession is inviolable,'' he said repeatedly. If a priest knew beforehand of the nature of the confession, though, he should not hear the Confession, he said.

Mr O'Farrell seized on those comments in Parliament saying that as a Catholic he understood that the bonds of the confessional were an important sacrament of the church.

''But I struggle to understand … that if a priest confesses to another priest that he's been involved in paedophile activities, that that information should not be brought to police,'' he said.

The sanctity of the confessional has been hotly debated in the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into sex abuse, which is examining whether mandatory reporting rules should be imposed on Confession.

Under the NSW Crimes Act, a person must disclose knowledge of a sexual assault or risk being charged with concealing a serious indictable offence, but priests are one of a small class of occupations that cannot be prosecuted unless the Attorney-General consents.

On Tuesday police charged Brother Martin Harmata, 59, with molesting two 13-year-old boys at a Catholic college in Sydney's west in the 1980s.

Brother Harmata, 59, chose not to appear in court and remained in the holding cells at Wyong Local Court when his matter was mentioned on Tuesday.

He allegedly masturbated in front of one boy and had the boy masturbate him. He allegedly rubbed the other boy on his upper thigh and made him touch his penis. He did not seek bail.

Another former teacher at the school, 58, has been charged with sexual offences against one of the boys and an eight-year-old girl. He is on bail and due to appear at Blacktown Local Court on December 13.

A senior detective, who is alleged to be a past victim of Brother Harmata, made formal complaints to the school and police last year.

Asked his reaction to the news, Cardinal Pell said: ''Very sad. I apologise to … the victims.''

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, shrugged off complaints from various quarters that the royal commission was so broad in its scope that it could run for years.

''We are talking about what could be an extensive period of time and we should not set artificial limits on getting this done properly,'' she said.

The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, backed the royal commission and on Tuesday morning spoke to his friend, Cardinal Pell.

Mr Abbott, a practising Catholic, defended the cardinal.

''There have been over the years some shattering revelations about a number of highly respected institutions including, of course, my own church,'' Mr Abbott said. ''I know that the current leadership of the church is determined to get to the bottom of this.''

A senior commissioner from the 1980s Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody has warned the government to dampen the expectations of victims in the wide-ranging inquiry into child sexual abuse.

Hal Wootten, QC, said that given the enormous scale of sexual abuse across institutions, it was unrealistic to expect all or even most cases to be investigated.

Several commissioners are expected to be chosen by Christmas.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet recommended those requiring crisis support contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

A spokesman from the victims' advocacy group Broken Rites said Confession was a non-issue. ''The real issue is when victims or their families complain about abuse, the church authorities fail to arrange an interview between the victim and police.''

with Jonathan Swan

This story Pell defends confessional silence over sins of fathers first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.