By Lidia Kelly
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia's top attorneys agreed on Friday to standardize laws across the country forcing priests to report child abuse revealed to them during confessions in a move that could widen a schism between the church and the government.
Federal and state attorneys-general agreed on key principles for the laws, which fall under the responsibility of state and territory governments and which address the most contentious recommendations from a government inquiry into child abuse.
With half of the country's population identifying themselves as Christian, Australia has faced a crisis of faith amid worldwide allegations that churches and religious leaders had protected pedophile priests and habitually covered sexual abuse.
"Confessional privilege cannot be relied upon to avoid a child protection or criminal obligation to report beliefs, suspicions or knowledge of child abuse," according to a communique published after the attorneys meeting.
In addition, priests would not be able to use a "confessional privilege" defense to avoid giving evidence against a third party in criminal or civil proceedings.
Although most states have already been working on such laws, the unified position would implement a nationwide standard - but could also lead to a widening rift between the church and the government in a country that adheres to a secular constitution.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the country's top Catholic body, said the Catholic Church supports "nationally consistent" reporting regimes to protect children.
However, he said, the church does not consider the removal of the legal protection for the "sacramental seal of confession" helpful or necessary.
"The removal of protections at law would be ineffective, counter-productive and unjust: ineffective because abusers do not seek out confession and certainly would not seek it out if they knew that their offences would be reported," Coleridge was cited as saying in a statement e-mailed to Reuters.
"Counter-productive because the rare opportunity a priest may have to counsel abusers to turn themselves in and amend their life would be lost; and unjust because it would establish as a matter of law a situation where a priest would not be able to defend himself against an accusation made against him."
In 2017, Australia ended a five-year powerful government inquiry into institutional child sex abuse, which came up with 122 recommendations, including that Australia introduce a law forcing religions leaders to report child abuse. [REUTERSNEWS-T004/Id635fe00e15211e7acb4cd90b8c479ce]
Australia's Cardinal George Pell, who is appealing a conviction for sexually assaulting two teen-aged choir boys, has been so far the most senior Catholic official worldwide to be jailed for child sex offences.
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Leslie Adler)