SYDNEY, Australia — Catholic leaders in Australia on Friday rejected a government push to force priests to report accusations of child sexual abuse heard during confession, saying it would violate a sacred rite, infringe on religious freedom and ultimately do little to protect children.
The rebuke came as the local Roman Catholic Church issued a lengthy response to a five-year government inquiry uncovering what officials called a “national tragedy” of widespread sexual abuse of children spanning decades.
The investigation, perhaps the most far-reaching inquiry of its kind undertaken by any country, examined abuse in religious institutions, schools and other establishments, finding that many of the cases of suspected abuse involved Catholic priests and religious brothers.
Church officials sought to strike a largely conciliatory tone in their response, acknowledging the gravity of the church’s “colossal failures” to protect children and embracing the vast majority of the recommendations coming out of the inquiry. Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said on Friday that the church’s leadership had made a pledge: “Never again.”
Yet the church rejected the proposal to hold priests legally culpable for failing to tell the authorities of acts of suspected abuse they hear during confession. Laws that make a failure to report a criminal offense have already been introduced in some parts of the country.
“We believe the legislation abolishing priest privilege is based in fact on a lack of understanding of what actually happens in confession and tends to live in a purely hypothetical world,” Archbishop Coleridge said at a news conference on Friday.
“The bishops and leaders have the utmost respect for the law,” he added. “But we believe this proposed law is ill-conceived and impractical. It won’t make children safer and it will most likely undermine religious freedom.”
The response comes at a moment of extraordinary turmoil for the global church over its handling of widespread child sexual abuse reaching from the parish level to the highest tiers of the Catholic hierarchy.
The crisis flared last weekend when a former top Vatican diplomat urged Pope Francis to resign, accusing him of joining other leading officials in covering up abuse. It also follows a searing grand jury report in Pennsylvania that found more than 1,000 identifiable victims of sexual abuse over several decades at local dioceses. That report was the broadest government examination in the United States into child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
In 2012, Australia created a royal commission, the highest form of investigation in this country, to examine child sexual abuse across a range of institutions. The findings, released in December, revealed that the country had been in the grips of an abuse epidemic that stretched over decades and involved more than 4,000 institutions.
Investigators identified 4,444 abuse victims and at least 1,880 suspected abusers from 1980 to 2015. The report said that 62 percent of victims who said they were abused in a religious institution said the abuse took place in a Catholic facility.
Australians have been alarmed by revelations of sexual abuse in recent years, including a scandal in Ballarat, the hometown of Cardinal George Pell, one of the highest-ranking Catholic prelates to face trial for charges of historic sexual offenses. In that town, the authorities said, a police officer investigating a pedophile ring at local Catholic schools found that as many as 30 abuse victims had committed suicide.
The commission issued 189 recommendations, including creating a National Office for Child Safety and calling on Australia’s Catholic leaders to press the Vatican to end mandatory celibacy for priests.
In its response Friday, the Australian Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia issued a 57-page report in which church leaders expressed “profound sorrow” over the abuse by priests and others and the church’s failure to confront the problem.
“Until trust is rebuilt, all the apologies in the world will miss the mark,” Archbishop Coleridge said, adding that the church was taking significant steps toward reform.
“There will be no cover-up,” he said. “There will be no transferring of people accused of abuse. There will be no placing the reputation of the church above the safety of children.”
In its report, the church accepted nearly all the royal commission’s recommendations. Local church leaders said they would consult with Vatican officials on the matter of celibacy, and consider ways to modify religious life, including shorter terms of celibate commitment or voluntary celibacy.
But the report took issue with the recommendations involving confession, including a proposal that children practice the rite only in an open space within the clear line of sight of another adult, and lifting the seal of confession to report abuse allegations.
Church officials said that their objection to reporting abuse cases applied only to the confessional, where there is an expectation that conversations are shielded.
“The rare instance where a perpetrator or victim might have raised this in confession would be less likely to occur if confidence in the sacramental seal were undermined,” the report said, adding that “an opportunity would be lost to encourage a perpetrator to self-report to civil authorities or victims to seek safety.”
Church officials said that a transformation of the church was already underway, with improved screening and training of potential priests and nuns.
Sister Monica Cavanagh, the president of Catholic Religious Australia, expressed hope that the church’s changes could open up more opportunities for women to become involved. The church could also demonstrate its resolve to prevent the failures of the past from being repeated, she said.
“There is the potential for change to happen,” she said at the news conference on Friday. “We have the opportunity, we have the authority to do things in our own local reality, and I think that’s where we have to begin.”
Advocates for abuse victims welcomed the church’s apparent willingness to confront its problems, but also noted that the changes should have been embraced long ago.
“That should have been the norm for years and years and years, and of course, it never was,” said Judy Courtin, a lawyer and advocate representing victims of institutional abuse.
Ms. Courtin also disagreed with the church’s position on reporting instances of sex abuse heard during confessions.
“The only consideration,” she said, “should be the protection and safety of children and vulnerable adults.”