A- A A+

Child abuse dobbing laws

42 Comments
Frank Brennan |  23 July 2012

ConfessionalThe Church's handling of sexual abuse claims has been back in the media spotlight. Following the 4 Corners program 'Unholy Silence' which exposed the dastardly deeds of 'Fr F' in the diocese of Armidale during the 1980s, the bishops of Armidale and Parramatta, seeking to be completely transparent, have appointed a respected lawyer, Tony Whitlam QC, to conduct an inquiry into the Church response to Fr F.

The inquiry will focus on a meeting of Fr F with the 'Australian Catholic Bishops Special Issues Resource Committee' on 3 September 1992, and its aftermath. It will be up to Mr Whitlam to chase the paper trail and presumably interview all persons involved in the 1992 meeting. Twenty years on, recollections may well be hazy and varied, but that is not surprising.

The Judicial Vicar of the Diocese of Armidale was in attendance at that 1992 meeting and provided the bishop of Armidale with a detailed report a week later which is at variance with 'the file note of that meeting' referred to by Cardinal Pell on 4 Corners. The Archdiocese of Sydney has described the Judicial Vicar's report as 'a private report' and referred to 'notes of the meeting held by the Church's Professional Standards Office' but says that 'any official record of the meeting would be with the Armidale diocese'.

The appointment of a respected independent lawyer with no Catholic Church affiliation is the best means of ensuring that no stone is left unturned in revealing whatever can now be known about the case of Fr F. The NSW Police have also announced their own inquiry.

Even the Church's harshest critics need to remember that this case arose before the Church set up the Towards Healing protocol in 1996. That protocol was comprehensively revised and fine tuned in 2000 and again in 2010. A bishop receiving complaints about Fr F today would have far better processes available to him.

Also the church authorities would work closely with any child's parents who brought a complaint to the bishop helping and encouraging them to go to the police. If a victim came forward years later making a complaint today as an adult, the church authorities would continue with their own processes only if the victim decided that he or she did not want to go to the police.

Let's hope and pray that the bereaved families of Damian Jurd and Daniel Powell can at least be assured that the Church is doing all it can 20 years later to disclose all that happened in dealing with Fr F, learning belatedly any lessons that might be learned. Let's spare a thought for those other priests who did their best at the time to remove Fr F from ministry and access to children.

Let's also hope that any other victims of Fr F will come forward to the newly launched police inquiry and tell their story. Should they think the Church could help them, they could engage the Towards Healing protocol.

Unfortunately the media has run together he appointment of Whitlam in New South Wales with the call by some victims' groups in Victoria to abolish the seal of the confessional. There are three separate issues: mandatory reporting to state child protection officials of abuse of a particular child, reporting to police of suspected criminal activity by a particular perpetrator, and the seal of the confessional.

In all states and territories there are laws for the mandatory reporting of child abuse. These vary enormously across jurisdictions. What a relief for everyone involved if they could be uniform. In most states, professionals like teachers who are engaged with children are required to report suspected abuse of any child. There may well be a case for including clergy who deal regularly with children in any uniform list of mandatory reporters.

Only in New South Wales is there a general 'dobbing' law which requires anyone who has information about any serious criminal offence (not just child abuse) to refer the matter to police. Persons from various professions, including clergy, can be prosecuted for failing to report only with the approval of the Attorney-General.

I have no problem with the same law applying to clergy as to other professional groups in requiring mandatory reporting of child abuse. I have no problem with the same law applying to clergy as to other professional groups in requiring them to hand on information about criminal activity when that information is obtained in the course of their professional activity. But I would insist on one key difference.

A priest should never be required to disclose anything heard under the seal of the confessional.

The state has the same right to regulate matters for a priest outside the confessional as to regulate matters for all other citizens outside the confessional.

We do not live in a police state. We live in a pluralist democracy which respects human rights of all persons, including the right of religious freedom.

Catholic priests are bound by the Church's Code of Canon Law which provides: 'The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason. A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.'

Last week, Melbourne Victims' Collective coordinator Helen Last said, 'Priests need to be mandated to report from within the confessional and without the confessional'.

This followed upon the release of the Submission Guide published by the Victorian Parliament's Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and other Organisations asking 'To what extent should the reporting of suspicions of abuse be circumscribed by laws, customs and ethical codes of religions? (For example, should the sacrament of the Catholic confessional remain sacrosanct in these circumstances?)'

This question was comprehensively considered and decided in Victoria by the Report of the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry which was tabled as recently as February this year.

The panel chaired by retired Judge Philip Cummins recommended, 'An exemption for information received during the rite of confession should be made.' The report noted: 'a statutory exemption to the reporting duty should be provided in relation to information received during a religious confession. In Victoria, information revealed during religious confessions is considered privileged when admitting evidence before courts.'

Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu has ruled out changes to the seal of the confessional. He says members of the Inquiry 'all concluded that the sanctity of the confessional should remain. I think that's a powerful argument.'

The seal of the confessional is a red herring when it comes to protecting vulnerable children. Usually when hearing a confession, a priest will have no way of identifying a victim. He will have no idea of the date of any offence; it may have occurred decades ago. He will have no idea of where any offence was committed; it might have been Parramatta, but then again it might have been Paris or Parabadoo.

He more than likely will not even know the identity of the penitent; he might not even get to see him or her behind the confessional veil.

If the only information available were from the confessional, chances are that it will be information which is useless to police or child protection officers. If confessional reporting were mandatory, chances are that the perpetrator would simply not come to confession. So even in brute consequentialist terms, there is no point in making confession reportable to the state.

Most, if not all priests, would prefer to go to jail than disclose material from confession which could 'betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason' even if the penitent be a child molester, a murderer or a terrorist. And that's not because we don't feel compassion for children or other innocent persons. We respect the sacredness of the sacrament where the penitent and God relate in the presence of the priest.

Kids will be better protected in future if we put to one side the furphy about the seal of the confessional and address the real questions about uniform mandatory reporting and clear guidelines for reporting any suspected serious crime. Honouring the memories of Damian Jurd and Daniel Powell and the grief of their families, we should focus on the real issues which might help all children be better protected in the future. 


Frank BrennanFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. This Reflection first appeared on CathNews. 


 



Comments

Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

I really cannot perceive how this would work, even if any law was passed. How would anyone be able to second-guess what might be said in the confessional, and even if they did, how would they determine if the priest is revealing all the details. (Presuming they use Guantamo Bay-like enhanced interrogation techniques)
Also does this mean clairvoyants and tarot card readers should also be obliged to report potential sex offenders to authorities?

AURELIUS 23 July 2012

This article by a professor of law is less about the law than about special pleading for the preservation of the status quo. "We do not live in a police state. We live in a pluralist democracy which respects human rights of all persons, including the right of religious freedom." Not to mention the rights of the child to be free from rape and sexual molestation. Let's not have these heinous crimes excused under the cowardly cloak of "religious freedom". Quoting canon law as if that solves everything is of no comfort to vulnerable children who have no rights under canon law. Canon law in this context is about protecting the monsters who prey upon children and then confess to someone they know will not give away their nasty secrets. Quoting Ted Baillieu quoting the findings of Phillip Cummings is no argument. Let's hear the argument, not the circular self-serving assertions. The excuses are weak. We are told the priest won't necessarily know the name of the victim or the date or the location of the crime. That's precisely why allegations of such crimes should be in the hands of the police - that's for the police to do what they are trained to do. And only those deperate to prserve the status quo would try to con us into believing that police investigations of allegations of sexual crimes would lead to a police state. "If the only information available were from the confessional, chances are that it will be information which is useless to police or child protection officers." Cute but unworthy! Why would anyone think that the information from the confessional would be "the only information" available to the police? Red herring indeed, Prof Brennan. So let's have the real reasons for preserving the sanctity of the confessional. Then a proper honest debate can be had.

Frank Golding 24 July 2012

It's a red herring because no one goes to confession any more.

Juanita 24 July 2012

Fr Brennan says: "We do not live in a police state. We live in a pluralist democracy which respects human rights of all persons, including the right of religious freedom". What a pity he is so desperately,demonstrably almost unforgivably wrong. He needs to reflect on present times....on the reality that Australian security agencies have the power to shut away (would-be refugee) people indefinitely in detention without offering rhyme or reason and against which there is no appeal. If that is not a police state mentality then Fr Brennan is living in fantasyland...more wish than belief...and that's not what one should expect from a lawyer!

Brian Haill - Melbourne 24 July 2012

Confession may indeed be good for the soul, but what does the seal of confession mean for the spiritual wellbeing of priests who, in the scenario of having instances of crimes against children divulged to them, protect the criminals through their silence? If Christ drew a line between civil and spiritual affairs and authority ('render unto Caesar what is Caesar's' etc.) then by what statute does the Catholic Church institute and maintain the seal of the confessional? Is the gospel teaching to disciples that 'what you forgive on earth is forgiven in heaven' the scriptural basis for the Catholic Church's stance? (I ask sincerely, please excuse my ignorance; I mean no disrespect.) If so, how does that doctrine of non-disclosure mesh with Christ's warning that millstones and ponds are a better fate for those who hurt children? Can we assume that the church wouldn't see a journalist's refusal to disclose a source as an equally ethical stance? If that's the case, what is the basis for the claim of ethical superiority? Is it a cultural inheritance or a scriptural stance - and would either or both of those factors mean anything to a God looking upon the face of a raped child?

Barry G 24 July 2012

Spoken just like someone who doesn't have children - you really suprise me Frank - also, hasn't it occured to you that the abuser is most likely to be the one listening?

Felicity Costigan 24 July 2012

The imposition of mandatory reporting of criminal offences revealed to a confessor in the confessional brings to mind that curious idiom known as bull, illustrated in Fowler's English Usage by the example reported from an Irish building site, 'Don't come down the ladder,Paddy! They've taken it away." Such would no doubt also qualify as "bull" of a particular more colloquial type. This latter type of 'bull', as well as the idiomatic type, might well be applied to any law which demands a break of the confessional seal. I find it difficult to imagine the broad spectrum of criminal offenders from murderers to child abusers and all in between rushing off to confession in the knowledge that they will be arrested and imprisoned."Don't rush off to confession, Paddy! They've taken it away."

john frawley 24 July 2012

Some points: Why use "dobbing" in the headline with it's negative connotations? Surely dobbing is what should happen in child abuse cases. It may conform to some set of arcane rules that you do not disclose what is said in the confessional but I doubt whether this can be called ethical. I would also hope that absolution was only offered if the penance was to report and confess to police. Otherwise it would just be obscene.

Colin 24 July 2012

I don’t see how anything can be gained by priests not reporting child abuse. Fr Brennan suggests that this would discourage abusers coming to the confessional – undermine the role of the priest. But, if there is to be no reporting outcome, so what. If individuals confess, despite knowing that mandatory reporting is a consequence, they may well be seeking some sort of comfort before the next step is taken -- in which case the priest is helping them. Furthermore, an abuser might be seeking support in the legal process – again, a role for a priest. I notice that Fr Brennan seems to have unqualified confidence in the police and legal system. But establishing the perpetrator can be a very delicate process for it is not necessarily the person the child alleges. A child may be wishing to discuss his or her situation with a trusted adult – this may be a key part of the motive to reveal and seek consolation and reassurance as a result of their terrible and confusing experiences. But, a quite separate factor is the possibility that they could fear that they will not be believed, or are currently being threatened by the abuser. As a consequence, to give credence to their story,and in response to the inevitable question, “who?” -- they may name a person who they believe will not retaliate, but with whom they have spent trusted time. As a result of this possibility, some child protection authorities separate the two elements – one: establishing the abuse itself, two: confirming the named abuser. This process of confirming the identity of the abuser depends on the quality of policing – and I do not share Fr Brennan’s confidence relating to this stage. So, back to the confessional. An abuser might also be confessing to a child abuse crime for which another, innocent person, has been criminalised. Surely the priest’s possible role could involve releasing the innocent person from this pain and thus release the victim from continued abuse or threat or guilt associated with false allegation.

Jane 24 July 2012

I have a simple solution... Instead of saying. For your penance, go away and say three Hail Marys and an Our Father,' how about the priest say, 'Now go away and hand yourself in to the police.'

AURELIUS 24 July 2012

Removing the seal of silence from the confessional would not save a single child. Not a single perpetrator would be brought to book. No unrepentant and hardened molester will come to the confessional anyway - removing the seal from the confessinal will only take away an opportunity for a troubled person to speak his truth aloud, perhaps for the first time, perhaps as a first step towards seeking help for himself and his present or potential victims. Removing the seal can only make things worse, not better!

Joan Seymour 24 July 2012

Very few go to Confession any more. I stopped going when the boys in Rome put a stop to the Third Rite. My relationship with God has grown stronger! On the other hand, if someone confesses an evil intention, eg the intention to harm children such as in the Scottish situation at Dunblane some years back then, I believe, the priest has a duty to notify the police even if he does not know the person making the confession.

Francis 24 July 2012

Surely a powerful argument for the the Third Rite of confession; then the problem disappears.

Clair 24 July 2012

Regarding the so-called 'seal of the confessional'. my understanding was that one had to confirm that one would try not to sin again ,and without this there was no absolution. And as other correspondents have noted, 'penance' should be absolutely geared to "this must be reported to the police". For myself, the absence of the Third Rite meant I really prefer not to go at all.

Mary Maraz 24 July 2012

I think many people are missing Frank's point here. In what way will it help the police for a priest to say to them: "Someone came to confession to me and confessed that they had committed an indecent act with a child. I don't know their name. I don't know where they live. I did not see their face. I advised them to go to the police. I do not know the name or address of the child involved." Would the police take such information seriously? I doubt it. Should we have surveillance cameras outside every confessional? Perhaps the confessionals should be bugged!!! Anyway, as many have said, hardly anyone goes to confession these days, and those who do are most probably not the paedophiles or big criminals.

Rob Brian 24 July 2012

Surely a priest hearing a confession of child abuse has the right to withhold absolution. Also, the same priest must be able to direct a penitent to report themselves to the police. Many of the perpetrators obviously confessed to the same crime many times. I am amazed that they were absolved.

Gail Poynter 24 July 2012

Actually paedophiles do abuse the secrecy offered by the confessional, as they abuse and exploit everything else. Overseas and Australian cases record paedophiles who confess to other priests, who may or may not themselves be child rapists, in order to feel better about themselves. This wiping the slate clean then puts an end to any guilt which prevents them from abusing, even if only temporarily.

As far as better outcomes under Towards Healing, in my own case one of the authors of Towards Healing covered up, in 1996, thousands of child sex crimes involving dozens of little girls, whose names were all known, and the known offender was never reported to police.

As one of the children who was abused repeatedly for years thanks to catholic institutional self preservation, I seriously object to describing reporting serious crimes to police as "dobbing". How I wish someone had dobbed and rescued me.

Fr Frank's piece aims to establish one single point - the catholic church is above the law. And we all know from the experience of Irish children, what happens when the catholic church is allowed to do whatever it pleases to the most vulnerable in society without scrutiny or censure.

Nicky Davis 24 July 2012

Aurelius a confessor may suggest a recidivist penitent reveal their confession to police, but he cant manipulate/bully or force a penitent to go to cops eg by withholding absolution. Such indeed violates the seal as the only time the seal can be lifted is with 'free permission' of penitent.- By forcing [witholding absolution] a penitent to reveal confessional matter the confessor becomes the proximate, material, eficient cause of breaking the seal[the penitent is thereby an innocent instrumental cause. confessors cant demand the morally impossible[EG incriminating oneself creates a 'moral'/psychological' impossibility in the penitent[thus eg restitution never demands self incrimination of the penitent under duress from confessor 2 factors are involved in the above=forced breaking of the seal and non requirement of self incrimination re confessional matter/restitution/reparation. Confessors must respect the moral freedom of penitents Though rigorist Jansenist confessors would disagree and demand the morally impossible [of course the other extreme is to see reasonable difficulty as moral impossibility[as do laxist confessors] In this instance the difficulty of owning up is more than 'reasonably' difficult. Jesus did not require adulteress to subject herself to Sanhedrin police before absolving her. vatican Archbishop Girotti said confessors “have the duty to absolve sins, assuming that there is sincere repentance” and that informing civil officials, prison sentences or sanctions established by the laws of the state are another matter. Can. 983 §1. The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.

Father John Michael George 24 July 2012

"the sanctity of the confessional" "the seal of the confessional is inviolable" Whether you made it up last year, 100 or even 1,000 years ago does not make it any less ridiculous. These are not universal truths, they are the crumbling remnants of a corrupt, abusive and self serving hierarchy that has expected to get away with every crime imaginable for the last two millennia. And the only reason sensible people like Justice Cummins have not recommended they be swept away along with other desperately needed measures is because they know just how maniacally church leaders and apologists will defend these exceptions to the law. An equal and just society does not allow exceptions to the law. For priests to claim to be prepared to heroically face jail rather than "break the seal of the confessional" merely clarifies their firmly held belief that their quaint little customs are more important than, and above, the law of the land. Not that any of them believes there is any danger of actually going to jail. But still, a bad precedent to set even when it is harming no-one. But when used to protect paedophiles and endanger children it becomes a serious injustice that needs to be rectified.

Nicky Davis 25 July 2012

A very balanced analysis . Let us hope that the good sense in the article will help to ensure that the confessional seal remains inviolate .

Barry O'Keefe 25 July 2012

The message here for parents is clarion-clear. Keep your children away from Catholic priests and the Catholic Church. Both repeatedly behave as a law unto themselves with regard to the most heinous form of criminal conduct, as Brennan "confesses" - even to the point of deciding what is and isn't useful to the police in conducting a criminal investigation. What is dispensed at the confessional in these cases is not "absolution", it is collusion.

Michelle Goldsmith 25 July 2012

Father John George Michael, if someone is enagaged in "recidivist" sexually predatory behaviour, they should not be regarded as a penitent in the first place. The adultery example you have is irrelevant - for while adultery may be immoral, it is not criminal and does not involve the abuse/rape of a minor. Recidivist child abusing behaviour is a psychotic/sociopathic condition and a person in such a frame of mind cannot enter freely into the sacrament of confession.

AURELIUS 25 July 2012

All who come to confession are penitents be they sociopathic penitents or otherwise. The grace of salvation from Christ can penetrate pathologies of the mind and body[thus e,g., conditional absolution of the unconscious person [Christ died for 'socios'[psychopaths] as well as anticatholics. A socio, constitutionally without guilt or remorse, can still elicit imperfect contrition viz fear of hell and loss of heaven-fear remains in socios to some degree[imperfect contrition is adequate for confession AND ABSOLUTION] Furthermore a sociopath not having conscience or sense of guilt or shame constitutionally is judged by the confessor as, differing from those with built in psychological safeguards[guilt, shame, remorse, etc[read international expert on psychopaths Colombia university's Prof Robert Hare IN "Without Conscience". Advice given to a socio varieS from that given to one with shame/guilt/remorse intact. Furthermore not all recidivists are sociopaths[psychopaths]. some recidivists in fact can be utterly opposite to sociopaths viz obsessive personalities/or recidivist deluded psychotics, temperamentally driven to obsessive psychotic actions and behaviours]eg some obsessive stalkers, lovers,pyromaniacs etc] All are welcome to confession and judged according to their dispositions[Jesus died for all not just balanced personalities [but good thieves and bad thieves]. By the way the Sanhedrin judiciary enacted death for adultery-Jesus said "go and sin no more" bypassing Hebraic-Roman penalties of the time. PS I have been pastorally associated with psychiatric units, and criminals, over 37 years as a priest.

Father John Michael George 25 July 2012

In the interest of reality Aurelius not all recidivist pedophiles are sociopaths.[though elements of behaviour look alike. The recidivist pedophile is no more a sociopath than a recidivist alcoholic-both need confession and both need profound psychiatric/behaviour modification/ chemical intervention and help[but pedophiles though recidivistic are not thereby sociopathic or psychotic-just as a recidivist alcoholic is not thereby necessarily sociopathic or psychotic
thus a psychotic suffering psychotic delusions and hallucinations would seldom hold down if ever responsible jobs as have some pedophiles and alcoholics for extended times
pedophilia is diagnosticaly problematic enough without misdiagnosis as pure psychopathy
[eg decades ago psychiatrists advised bishops to recycle pedo priests as after treatment they were cured

[and re some alcoholics
again dont recklessly bandy around psychological terminology

[treating a recidivist alcoholic as a psychopath could create bigger problems due to wrong treatment[similarly re pedophiles]
a recidivist alcoholic wife basher wrongly misdiagnosed as psychopathic once cured of alcoholism may not gain parole being lumbered wrongly unjustly as sociopathic

Father John Michael George 25 July 2012

Can you really be sure that the identity of a confessed child abuser is always kept from the priest? What if the priest IS able to determine who is confessing? What if the penitent tells the priest that he or she has raped a child and will do it again? Do you really believe it is right to permit a priest to keep that information secret, even when he could prevent a child from suffering from being sexually assaulted? How far should government go to respect the rights of religious organizations to allow them to carry out their practices and beliefs? What about churches that believe in child-beating as a way to rid children of sin? What about groups that have made adult-child sex part of their religious doctrines? Are we, as a society, going to join in on the same conspiracy that Catholic leaders have done for centuries? That is, to protect perpetrators of child abuse over the victims?

Janet Heimlich 25 July 2012

Truly Janet these days with motor cars,big &little sinners tend to shop around[so it would be most unlikely to have a CV recognition of a penitent these days.[as mentioned by Janet My first appointment was a hub for Sydney wide penitents[and had been since the MSC French Fathers set up shop in 19th century. My general impression is of more shopping around today-thus greater chance of anonymity for "big sinners" etc; the Blessed Sacrament Fathers also provided a user friendly anonymous ambiance for outer suburb big sinners and lil ones too of course. In my Philippine experience the Redemptorists were a focal point for confessions from far and wide[of course there are always those FAB no fanfare John Vianney diocesan priests.] [in short the chances of recognising a type mentioned by janet would be zilch in my opinion]

Father John Michael George 25 July 2012

The point at issue is not that priests should reveal details spoken in the Confessional, but that the Penitant be urged to speak with Police or outside help before absolution be granted. There is also the need of those molested to see that the offender is punished as appropriate. It is offensive to hear that the Priest would be prepared to go to jail rather than reveal the words spoken in the Cofessional, but no apparent support given to those molested.

John P Keane 27 July 2012

It is very reassuring to see the latest statement by Bishop Bill Wright, the Bishop of Newcastle-Maitland: “There have been growing calls for a Royal Commission into the church’s handling of sexual assault matters. I am broadly supportive of public inquiries into these matters. The Wood Royal Commission in NSW in the 1990s comprehensively reviewed issues of child abuse across the whole community, including churches. The Wood Royal Commission resulted in powerful sweeping reforms to child protection in NSW that remains in place today. The Catholic Church in Victoria is actively engaged with the special Parliamentary Inquiry into the history of the procedures religious and community organisations have used to respond to allegations of child sexual assault. It would be for government to determine in consultation with their agencies and other groups in the community, what would be the best form of inquiry and into which particular issues it should inquire. The Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle will always cooperate to the full with any official investigation.” Compassion, justice, integrity and accountability should be the distinguishing marks of all Church actions and statements in this realm. As some of the comments to this piece show, some of our critics will never trust or detect empathy in anyone who speaks from within the Church. That just means we have to be all the more consistent in our approach, expecting criticism no matter what we say or do. Thanks Bishop Bill for your measured, strong leadership.

Frank Brennan SJ 27 July 2012

Mr Keane the Pope is the Vicar of christ and it is with Christ's authority that the seal of confession is enacted[in virtue of the Petrine Commission-the seal is a non negotiable written in the blood of martyrs. While a confessor may counsel the offender to go to police,he cannot 'bully' a penitent against his/her will to reveal confessional matter.Only a penitent may reveal 'matter' with penitent's freely willed permission not by bully tactics[ eg withholding absolution.] By bully tactics the priest is a proximate material accomplice in the violation of the seal CONTRARY TO THE WILL OF THE PENITENT [gravely sinful, even if relatively indirect.] Incidentally RE CIVIL LAW history "while rector of St. Peter's in 1813 in USA, Father Kohlmann undertook to return goods stolen by a penitent. When the owner, James Keating, urged the court to compel Kohlmann to reveal the name of the penitent, four Protestant judges of the Court of General Sessions upheld Kohlmann's defense of secrecy of the confessional. Referring to article 38 of the state constitution, the Protestant defense lawyer, Richard Riker, asked: "Where is the liberty of conscience to the Catholic, if the priest and the penitent be thus exposed?" The controversy attracted attention throughout the country; New York and other states soon passed special protective legislation."[New Catholic Encyclopaedia]

Father John Michael George 27 July 2012

Once again Frank Brennan "human rights advocate" used the church to pick and choose the way in which human rights are upheld and for whom. Why do we allow people to hide behind religion? If a priest can live with the knowledge of sexual abuse occurring and not do anything about it, because it was admitted in the confessional, then it shows what type of person they are... Who can possibly live with that information and not be tortured by the fact that they did nothing about it? A few hail marys does not absolve anyone of this crime and its disastrous effects.

Naomi Crew 27 July 2012

OK, I finally have a solution to this - what if the priest dobs in the child abuser, then goes to confession for breaking the seal of confession?

AURELIUS 27 July 2012

Naomi Crew your suggestion the confessor does nothing about confessed abuse is, at best, questionable: 1.] Confessors can counsel getting help or going to police[where else could abuser risk disclosure and get such counsel?] 2.]The confessor assists society by eliciting repentance and resolve not to sin again[again name another locus of unassailable confidentiality where he would risk disclosure and get such urging and help?] 3.]Confessors facilitate reconciliation and restitution to the primary, oft Forgotten, constantly Abused Victim of child abuse viz Jesus Christ["what you do to the least of these you do to me"[no judge jury or police station will handle the abuse against Christ far graver than any child abuse. 4 The history of civil law on confessional seal has indeed been a stormy one. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13649b.htm

Father John Michael George 27 July 2012

re Aurelius' 'what-if' genre and his quicky solution for confessor: Canon 1388, §1: "A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs an automatic excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict." ---- wikipaedia adds: "For a priest to break confidentiality would lead to a latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication, the lifting of which is reserved to the Holy See—in fact, to the Pope himself (Code of Canon Law, 1388 §1). It is presumed such a breach could be forgiven only with the lifting of the authority of that priest to ever hear confessions again, and a requirement that the priest undertake an extended period of penance, perhaps in a monastery."

Father John Michael George 27 July 2012

Father George Michael - the "quickness" of my solutions reflects the nature of the severity of this issue. The intention is not to find a solution for the confessor, but to protect a child from abuse. So if the decision resulted in either prison or excommunication, at least the latter consequence provides justice for the child. I'm sure God up above would forgive even a priest who is excommunicated by the bureaucrats of God's earthly kingdom.

AURELIUS 27 July 2012

'Innocent till proven guilty' is the bedrock of civil law [Do we jettison it as it can save criminals while saving numerous innocent people? Equally do we jettison the seal of confession because it is a safe-haven for criminals and non criminals alike; enabling contrite criminals to leave the sacred tribunal in the state of grace and repentant [whereas,the above time honored 'civil cop out' for some crims doesn't assure remorse, if declared legally innocent! "Come now, let's settle this," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool."[ISAIAH 1:18]

Father John Michael George 27 July 2012

... and yet, Fr George- "God spared not the angels that sinned," as the Apostle Peter writes, "but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment" ( 2 Peter 2 : 4 )

Monica 29 July 2012

Monica, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p1s2c1p7.htm) has a section covering the Fall of the Angels (paragraphs 391-395). It teaches that fallen angels cannot repent. The relevant paragraph is paragraph 393 which stresses the irrevocable nature of their rejection of God. 393 It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels' sin unforgivable. "There is no repentance for the angels after their fall, just as there is no repentance for men after death."* *272 St. John Damascene, De Fide orth. 2,4: PG 94,877

Father John Michael George 30 July 2012

Fr George, you are very good at quoting church doctrines and their serial numbers, but I'm yet to hear what you actually believe in your heart. Amos 5:23-24 'Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!'

AURELIUS 30 July 2012

The Law and Canon Law only care about the facts.Not about the children ! The public wants this unpleasant subject to go away. Everyone wants the rapist sent to prison. As far as the victims, for those who have never experienced the trauma of being raped repeatedly as a child, the public sends heartfelt wishes and expect them to get over it. Because now the Church is saying, "Now the healing begins" and "Now they can get closure."RUBBISH.There is this general consensus among adults who have never experienced the trauma of rape, as children, that "children are resilient" and "will get over it." Apparently, having a long life ahead makes up for the short-period of "molestation" or "rape" endured in childhood.The SEVERITY of such SINS were clearly denounced by Jesus : "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea"... Better that a man should lose his life in so terrible a way than to destroy the souls of others....Drowned in the depth of the sea ??? He is talking about dying by CAPITAL PUNISMENT, to get the message across !...and how it is preferable to committing such an atrocious crime against a child ! This method of capital punishment was practiced by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, and possibly occasionally by the Jews.

Monica 30 July 2012

Aurelius what i believe from my heart is signed sealed and delivered [with variou documented reality checks. The heart the metaphorical source of feelimgs, emotions, intuitions, religious sentiment, such needs reality check of solid doctrine-the heart can be deceived- infatuated high school kids, at St Valentines high, know the heart is a fickle organ of the body subject to arrhythmia and missed beats under lerve-stress.

Father John Michael George 31 July 2012

Yes, Father George, but the Catholic church teaches the basic goodness of human nature. We are made in the image of God. The flaws/fickleness/infatuations you refer to are our human sinfulness.

AURELIUS 01 August 2012

State law will always be above Canon law. State law applies to all citizens including priests. If the Royal Comission directs that priests expose crimes discussed behind the veil of the confession then the priest must either report the crime to the police or go to jail.

Raphael Dingli 14 November 2012

Similar articles

A new conversation about Church sex abuse

71 Comments
Peter Day | 23 July 2012

HnadThe spectre of sexual abuse has become a defining moment for the Church; one that, if not addressed more universally, more openly, and more humbly, poses a serious threat to the Church's life and authority. We are, after all, dealing with something akin to crimes against humanity.


Truth and reconciliation in Toowoomba

35 Comments
Andrew Hamilton | 19 July 2012

Bishop Bob McGuckinThe consecration of Bishop McGuckin in Toowoomba threw into relief the poverty of our public life and the need of symbols of trust. In applauding dismissed Bishop Morris, the people expressed their esteem for a man who was deeply trusted, but also expressed their judgment on what had been done to him.


Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia's Constitution

8 Comments
Frank Brennan | 06 July 2012

Most Australians would agree that it’s time to free the Constitution from all vestiges of racial discrimination. For this, it needs an amendment affirming the status as Indigenous Australians as equal citizens. But in the current political climate, a referendum is unlikely to produce the necessary super majority of electors in four of the six states voting in favour.


Crisis of trust in the Vatican

34 Comments
Andrew Hamilton | 05 July 2012

The many bad stories about the Vatican raise questions about how central authority is exercised. Some critics focus on arrogance and misbehaviour there in the way that others see these behaviours in News Limited, the Greens, the Unions, and elsewhere. To address the way people in any organisation behave, you must first understand why they act as they do.


Australia's 20 year search for the right asylum policy

18 Comments
Frank Brennan | 26 June 2012

Last week’s tragedy of another mass loss of life at sea between Indonesia and Christmas Island focuses our minds yet again on an intractable public policy problem for Australia – our search for a coherent, workable and moral asylum policy.