Australia's Anglican priests will be free to report serious crimes revealed to them during confessions, ending a church law that has its roots in the 12th century.

The Anglican General Synod has agreed to relax its rigid priest-penitent law following revelations of endemic child sexual abuse during federal and state inquiries.

While welcomed by child abuse victims' groups, the move falls short of long-standing calls for mandatory reporting under laws applying to doctors and teachers.

The option of allowing priests to break confessional confidentiality also has to be approved separately by the church's 23 dioceses, although the synod vote was unanimous and is expected to win nationwide approval.


The Catholic Church, from which the Anglicans inherited the law after splitting from Rome during the reign of King Henry VIII, has made no similar moves. The laws of both have forbidden priests to disclose anything said during a formal confession even when required by law.

Only the federal Government, New South Wales, Victoria and the Northern Territory provide for priest-penitent confidentiality in evidence acts, although this applies only to ritual confession and may not provide full protection. In all other states and territories priests are subject to common law, which does not guarantee confessional privilege.

Until the Synod vote, Anglican law treated confessional discussions as "inviolable", allowing priests to discuss or report their substance only with the consent of the penitent.

The new rules will allow priests to report serious crimes such as child sexual abuse and other offences carrying prison sentences of five years or more.

"In some what you might call extreme circumstances, a priest may not be bound by the seal of the confessional," Adelaide Anglican Archbishop Jeffrey Driver told the ABC.

"What this legislation is doing has made it absolutely clear that that's what the church expects and also permits, so clergy are not put in the position of feeling that they're breaking a sacred vow.

"It releases them from that so they can do with good conscience what I believe they know they should do."

The change goes some way towards answering repeated calls for an end to confessional secrecy and for mandatory reporting by priests told of serious crimes.


Announcing the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, whose hearings have shocked with evidence of rape, torture and beatings, former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard described priests' silence as a "sin of omission".