Churches should put the safety of children first when it comes to the secrecy of the confessional, says Malcolm Turnbull.
State and territory governments are working on how to address the issue following a recommendation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The commission recommended the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference ask the Vatican to reform church law by removing provisions that "prevent, hinder or discourage compliance with mandatory reporting laws by bishops or religious superiors".
However, church leaders say the seal of the confessional is inviolable and can't be broken.
In announcing the formal response to the inquiry, the prime minister had a clear message to the churches: "The safety of children should always be put first."
Attorney-General Christian Porter said the states and territories, which had responsibility for mandatory reporting laws and systems, currently dealt with priests in different ways.
"The process will be that the states have agreed to harmonise their laws, so in effect to accept the recommendation of the royal commission."
The only question for the federal government was how state laws interacted with section 127 of the Commonwealth Uniform Evidence Act, which covers religious confessions.
"That provides a protection to the confessional, but ever since that provision has existed that protection has never been absolute," Mr Porter said.
"It's always been very heavily qualified by the fact that confessions made for a criminal purpose have never been the subject of a protection or a privilege."