Philip Wilson Catholic Church

Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, who was found guilty of covering up child abuse.

The royal commission into institutional child sexual abuse identified, among many areas, one thing that allowed abuse to continue in the Catholic Church: the confessional. Perpetrators had somewhere they could go, be absolved of what they had done, and face no further action.

Each state and territory currently has mandatory reporting laws which dictate that people in certain occupations must report that they know or have reason to believe a child is being abused. Until now, churches have been exempt from this requirement. Who has to report what and when varies from state to state. The plan is to now harmonise the law, but some states and territories have already begun to crack down, and the church is predictably not happy about it.


Under their laws, someone must report if they have the “belief on reasonable grounds” that a child has been or is currently subject to “sexual abuse … or non-accidental physical injury”. It applies to a variety of medical professionals — doctors, dentists, nurses, psychologists, educational or childcare workers and many others. 

However, earlier this month the ACT became the first jurisdiction to introduce laws forcing priests to break the seal of confession. The laws will apply from March 31 2019.

New South Wales

NSW is less prescriptive in who must report, but more detailed about what they must report. Essentially, anyone who delivers any healthcare, education, residential services or law enforcement to children, must report if they have “reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is at risk of significant harm”.

It also defines the kind of abuse that must be reported: physical, sexual, emotional or psychological abuse, neglect and exposure to domestic violence. This definition is replicated in Tasmania, South Australia, Northern Territory and Western Australia.

The government in NSW have tried to stay out of the argument until the conversation is completed at a national level. Premier Gladys Berejiklian said in April it was “beyond the jurisdiction of the state”

South Australia

South Australia was very close behind the ACT in establishing laws that would force priests to disclose abuse. Priests in the state have already said they would defy these laws. The occupations are much the same as above — medical practitioners, social workers, police, teachers etc and now ministers of religion. They must report if  “they suspect on reasonable grounds that a child or young person has been or is being abused or neglected”.


The government plans to include information disclosed in a religious confession in mandatory reporting, and the church (while in principle backing mandatory reporting) opposes breaking the seal of confession.

Tasmania has a long list of professions — medical, education, childcare, or public service workers who have any involvement with children — who must report a belief, suspicion on reasonable grounds, or knowledge that a child has been or is being abused or is at risk of being abused.


Victoria broadly requires anyone 18 or above who has information that leads them to believe that a sexual offence has been committed against a child (someone under the age of 16) to disclose that information to the police. However, despite years of pushing, the confessional is still exempt. Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart is keen it stays that way, saying he would go to jail before they breaking the sanctity of the confessional.


For Queensland, the argument is not an abstract one. In 2003, Catholic priest Michael McArdle — after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting generations of children — said he had confessed to his crime a staggering 1500 times in the confessional over a 25-year period. In an affidavit, he said each confession “was like a magic wand had been waved over me”. 

There have been calls to change the laws for years, and independent MP Rob Pyne has introduced legislation to that effect, but the Queensland government has been quiet about when that might happen.

The law applies different requirements for different roles. A relevant public service employee must report in certain circumstances around children in care; doctors, teachers and police officers must report more generally; and school staff must report on behalf of their students, if they have the knowledge, or reasonable suspicion a child is being physically or sexually assaulted.

Western Australia

Like Queensland, different acts require different things from different professions. On the one hand, medical professionals, teachers or boarding supervisors and police officers must report sexual abuse if they form a reasonable suspicion it is, or has been, occurring during their work. Anyone who works with children through the family court in WA is required to report a reasonable suspicion of abuse, neglect or psychological damage from exposure to domestic violence.

Also, like Queensland, the government has not made any hard commitments to changing the law.

Northern Territory

The NT is broad, requiring “any person” with a belief on reasonable grounds that a child has suffered, or is likely to suffer, harm or exploitation, to report it. NT’s government have not proposed any specific changes to their laws, perhaps more immediately concerned with non-church abuse in their rural areas.