Priests should not be forced to report child sexual abuse revealed in the confessional, top Australian Catholics said Tuesday, adding they would rather risk jail than break the sacramental seal.
The comments follow a national inquiry set up by the government into institutional child sexual abuse, which is in its final phase after more than four years of hearings.
The Royal Commission released 85 proposed reforms Monday, including a law making failure to report such abuse a criminal offence even when the information was revealed during confession.
"There (should) be no exemption, excuse, protection or privilege from the offence granted to clergy," it said.
One of Australia's leading Catholic clerics, Archbishop of MelbourneAust Denis Hart, said that confession was a fundamental part of religious freedom.
Asked if priests would go to jail rather than breach the seal of confession, Hart told ABC radio: "I've said that I would."
"I believe that this is an absolute sacrosanct communication of a higher order which priests by nature respect," he added.
"They (priests) don't ever want to do anything that would hurt children. But because of the nature of that encounter, they are bound by what the church sees as that encounter, and they've got to be faithful to that."
Hart was backed by other high-profile clerics, including his Brisbane counterpart Mark Coleridge and Jesuit priest and lawyer Father Frank Brennan.
"If there is a law that says that I have to disclose it, then yes, I will conscientiously refuse to comply with the law," Brennan told The Australian Tuesday.
"All I can say is that in 32 years no one has ever come near me and confessed anything like that.
"And instituting such a law, I say, simply reduces rather than increases the prospect that anyone ever will come and confess that to me."
The Royal Commission said it made the recommendation after hearing cases "where perpetrators who made a religious confession to sexually abusing children went on to reoffend and seek forgiveness".
Attorney-General George Brandis told public radio Australian law had always protected certain professional relationships including confessions.
While exceptions were possible, this was "by no means a simple, straight-forward issue", he said, adding that there were "important issues of religious freedom" to consider as well.
Australia ordered the Royal Commission in 2012 after a decade of growing pressure to investigate allegations of child abuse across the country.