Australian bishops resist calls to overturn seal of confession in abuse cases

[Austen Ivereigh]

The Australian bishops have accepted “98 per cent” of the recommendations of a five-year major inquiry into institutions’ handling of sex abuse, but have rejected the commission’s calls for a change to church law that would oblige priests to break the seal of the confessional. 

The bishops said the call was “contrary to our faith and inimical to religious liberty” and that there was no contradiction between the safeguarding of children and vulnerable people and maintaining the seal.

The BBC story is here. The bishops’ response document is here. 

The royal commission inquiry, which ended last year, heard more than 8,000 testimonies about abuse in churches, schools and sports clubs. Among its recommendations specifically related to the Catholic Church, the commissioners said Catholic priests should face criminal charges if they failed to report sexual abuse disclosed to them during confession.

“Laws concerning mandatory reporting to child protection authorities should not exempt persons in religious ministry from being required to report knowledge of suspicions formed, in whole or in part, on the basis of information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession,” the royal commission said last December. 

Responding to the findings yesterday in its 57-page report, the Australian bishops accepted almost all of the recommendations. But they said that while clergy should be obligated by mandatory reporting requirements, an exception had to continue to be made in respect of information revealed during celebration of the Sacrament of Penance (Confession). They said: 

Children will be less rather than more safe if mandatory reporting of confessions were required: 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; and so an opportunity would be lost to encourage a perpetrator to self-report to civil authorities or victims to seek safety. Mandatory reporting of confessions would also be a violation of freedom of religious belief and worship.

The call for the Church to revise its strict adherence to the confidentiality of confession is not new, especially in relation to sexual abuse of children. The argument is favour is apparently reasonable: that priests who have received absolution for abuse in the confessional later go on to commit further acts that might have been prevented if they had been reported to the police. In some cases, an assumption is made that receiving absolution in the confessional is seen by an offender as a kind of alternative (and far more lenient) punishment than he would have received by going to the police. 

But in reality, offenders who are not ready to turn away from their behaviour are very unlikely to go anywhere near the confessional, and those that do confess their abuse will be told to present themselves to the authorities as a condition of receiving absolution. In other words, the seal of the confession, as the Australian bishops say, makes it more, not less, likely that victims will be protected from depraved acts. 

Like doctor-patient confidentiality or a journalist’s commitment to protect her sources, the seal of the confessional is all about trust. It is inviolable because once an exception is made, the trust on which it depends breaks down. Like a journalist prepared to go to jail to protect her source, a priest cannot violate the seal, even if the law of the land demands it, and must be willing to suffer to protect, for the sake of the greater good. 

But the Australian bishops have promised to consult the Holy See on two related issues. 

The first is to clarify whether information received from a child during the sacrament of reconciliation that they have been sexually abused is covered by the seal of confession. There has been disagreement among canonists in relation to this issue, because in this instance the child is not confessing. 

The second is whether canon law should make mandatory what is almost always the case, namely, that absolution can and should be withheld from someone confessing abuse until they report themselves to civil authorities. 

Listen to Austen Ivereigh on BBC World Service here.

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