The Seal of the Confessional (Or: Hear No Evil, Report No Evil)


Mandatory reporting of child abuse revealed during the confessional process within the Catholic and Anglican Churches will be high on the agenda at the royal commission for many. There will be a real bun fight over this with supporters of the status quo. At present throughout the Commonwealth of Australia, priests are exempted from mandatory reporting requirements if the matter comes up under the process of the confessional. Both sides are already lining up for the battle.

The key factor will be the exact definition of a ‘sin’ in the confessional context. Is a ‘sin’ legal, but morally wrong, for example, adultery, or does the definition also include a crime under secular law? Debate will swirl around this particular distinction, particularly from the privacy perspective.

Firstly, consider the comments immediately following the royal commission announcement from Australia’s most senior Catholic, Cardinal George Pell. When referring to past dealings with the issue of paedophile priests being revealed during the confessional process, the cardinal noted that the priests hearing the confession “were entitled to think of paedophilia as simply a sin you could repent of.” Good luck trying that one on a judge. For example, “I repent, your Honour, can I please go now?” Pell does not distinguish between a ‘sin’ and a ‘crime’.

If the law were to be changed, Pell declares that he would refuse to hear a confession of paedophilia and therefore avoid having to report it. Simply, if you don’t hear of a crime, you are free of responsibility. To Pell, “the sanctity of the confessional is inviolable” but apparently the safety of children is not.

Lower ranking priests have been rather more blunt in their comments. Priest and law professor, Frank Brennan, thinks a law change would be “a serious interference with the right of religious freedom.” He then uses references to “a police state mentality” of “almost Russian dimensions.” Eventually, which is odd for a law academic, he admits that if the law were changed, he “would disobey it and if need be I would go to jail.”

The Irish government, following a recommendation of its enquiry, has enacted a law for mandatory reporting. Apparently, it has not yet been tested in the courts, but may well be sometime soon. This is because a spokesperson for the 800-strong Irish Association of Catholic Priests, Sean McDonagh, says members will break the law. The Auxillary Bishop of Dublin, Raymond Field, echoes Pell when he states that, “the seal of the confessional is inviolable as far as I am concerned and that’s the end of the matter.”

Pell and his confreres have support from some surprising sources. In an editorial, The Sydney Morning Herald declared that, “The Royal Commission should certainly refrain from including the concept of compelling testimony from the confessional.” The newspaper further claims that, “politicians should resist this temptation to march the secular state into an area where it doesn’t need to tread.”

Waleed Aly, high-profile Muslim and ABC commentator, also opposes changing the law. In an opinion piece, he refers to the “spectacle” of high-profile Catholics such as the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, “jumping on the anti-confessional bandwagon.” Mr Aly really lets loose with “irreligious people trying to address a religious problem with brute force.” Finally, he uses a common argument that a law change would just make things worse. Presumably, paedophiles would no longer confess, thus removing the chance of convincing the penitents that they are doing wrong and should seek professional assistance to curb their behaviour.

Look for more arguments along this line as time goes on.

As soon as the royal commission was announced, the President of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, Terry O’Gorman, supported Mr Aly’s line in full. Changing the law, he said, would be, “fundamentally illogical” because of the loss of the chance for counseling intervention. Somehow, it would “ultimately prevent priests from taking steps to prevent sexual abuse.”

No serving politician has been stupid enough to support Pell and his sympathisers. Abbott, Pine, O’Farrell, Hansen-Young, Xenophon, Gillard, Roxon, and many others have backed a law change. An online poll of 6,000 readers by The Sydney Morning Herald revealed 73% support for the law change, 21% against, and 6% uncommitted. Curiously, the ‘against’ vote approximates the proportion of Catholics in Sydney, but there was no breakdown on the basis of religious preference and this would be interesting to know.

Some clerics also support a law change. Retired Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, head of the Catholic Bishops, says Pell is “out of step with the majority of Australian bishops” and should “no longer speak for the Catholic Church in Australia on the issue of sexual abuse by the clergy.” He described Cardinal Pell as an, “embarrassment.”

While Carindal Pell would refuse to hear a confession so he would not have to report it, a Sydney priest and founder of Youth Off The Streets gives an apparent counterpoint argument (which would seem to be the same argument and outcome of non-reporting). He would refuse to hear the confession precisely because he would feel compelled to report it. The media-savvy celebrity priest, Bob Maguire, makes no bones about his support for a law change. “God knows where the seal of the confessional came from – it’s got nothing to do with the Bible.”

As a help to Father Maguire, Canon 21 of the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 gives the first direct mention of it, with attendant penalties for the non-compliant priest detailed in: Hefele-Leclercq “Historie des Conciles” at the year 1215; Mansi or Harduin, “Coll. conciliorum”.

Apparently, the forerunner of the confessional booth was introduced by St Charles Borromeo of Milan in 1565 as a screen between two chairs. The purpose was to prevent sexual contact between priests and penitents.

Read more here:

TOMORROW: The terms of reference revisited, part 1

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)


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