By Byron Kaye and Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Catholic church in Australia said on Friday it would oppose laws forcing priests to report child abuse when they learn about it in the confessional, setting the stage for a showdown between the country's biggest religion and the government.
Pope Francis, leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics, is facing sexual abuse crises in several countries and the stance taken by the Australian bishops reflected the abiding, powerful influence conservatives in the church.
Visiting Ireland earlier this week, Pope Francis begged forgiveness for the multitude of abuses suffered by victims in Ireland, and he has promised no more cover-ups.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), the country's top Catholic body, said it did not accept a recommendation from an official inquiry which would force priests by law to report abuse to the police when they hear about it in confession.
Two of Australia's eight states and territories have since introduced laws making it a crime for priests to withhold information about abuse heard in the confessional, while the others have said they are considering their response.
"This proposed law is ill-conceived, and impracticable, it won't make children safer, and it will most likely undermine religious freedom," ACBC President Mark Coleridge told reporters in Sydney, referring to the sanctity of the confessional.
The seal of confession was "a non-negotiable element of our religious life and embodies an understanding of the believer and God", Coleridge added.
Twenty-two percent of Australians are catholic and the move sets up a rare schism between the church and the government, in a country that adheres to a secular constitution.
Andrew Singleton, professor of philosophy at Deakin University in the state of Victoria, said the bishops' response reflected a disconnect in Australia between religious and secular sensibilities.
"Their stance is the classic tension between canon law, and their sense that there is some sort of higher, transcendent entity, and common law," Singleton said.
Last year, Australia ended a five-year government inquiry into child sex abuse in churches and other institutions, amid allegations worldwide that churches had protected paedophile priests by moving them from parish to parish.
The inquiry heard seven percent of Catholic priests in Australia between 1950 and 2010 had been accused of child sex crimes and nearly 1,100 people had filed child sexual assault claims against the Anglican Church over 35 years.
Accusations of cover-ups in the church have reverberated all the way to Pope Francis, who has been accused by a United States archbishop of knowing for years about sexual misconduct by an American cardinal and doing nothing about it.
The ACBC's opposition runs against laws which take effect in South Australia, the country's fifth-biggest state, in October, and in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) from April 2019.
Representatives of the attorneys general of South Australia and ACT were not immediately available for comment.
Larger New South Wales and Victoria states have said they are considering the recommendation, while Western Australia has promised a similar law. Queensland, the third-largest state, has never exempted priests from mandatory reporting of abuse.
The stance taken by the Australian bishops also runs against the position taken by their church's chief adviser on child abuse complaint handling, Francis Sullivan, who said in 2017 that "priests, like everybody else, will be expected to obey the law or suffer the consequences".
Sullivan was unavailable for comment on Friday.
Clare Leaney, CEO of In Good Faith Foundation, a victim support group, described the bishops' decision as "more of the same".
"I've spoken to a number of survivors ... who said they were actually quite disappointed," Leaney said.
"We are aware of at least one instance where the confession has been misused."
The ACBC report came two weeks after a former Australian archbishop became the most senior Catholic cleric in the world to be convicted of concealing abuse, and was ordered to serve a one-year prison sentence at home.
The convicted former archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, himself a former ACBC president, was found to have failed to report child abuse outside the confessional. He filed an appeal against his conviction on Thursday.
Australia's former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull had been scheduled to deliver a rare public apology to victims of sexual abuse on Oct. 22 but he was ousted by his party earlier this month.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye and Colin Packham; Editing by Michael Perry & Simon Cameron-Moore)