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On breaking the seal of confession

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Geoffrey Robinson |  22 November 2012

ConfessionalLast week, in an interview on ABC radio, I made a statement about the seal of confession and sexual abuse. I have been challenged on that statement, have thought further about it, and wish to make a new statement. The matter is closely allied to the question of the treatment centre run by the Church, and I'd like to start there.

It was a treatment centre, so the clinicians asked only questions directly related to treatment. This did not include seeking admissions of specific offences and, in particular, it did not involve asking the name and address of any victim. To ask such questions would send the client running away from the treatment. The clinicians therefore did not have knowledge of specific crimes.

More importantly, if one single person had been reported to the police, the entire treatment program would have closed down permanently the same day, for no offender would ever again come near it. In gaining information on one single client that may or may not have been useful in securing a conviction, the price to be paid would have been that no offenders into the future would receive any treatment.

If you ask me whether I can give a guarantee that a particular offender will never offend again after treatment, then no, I cannot give it. But if you ask me whether the number of new offences will be significantly, even dramatically less if 100 offenders receive serious treatment, then yes, I can give that guarantee.

This is a question that society must face. Do we wish to adopt only a single solution of punishment for all cases of sexual abuse? Or do we wish to include treatment as another option? If we can have both, so much the better, but on many occasions that is not possible. Sometimes we have to choose between punishment and prevention.

I believe the treatment centre did a great deal of good. Money spent there was not money spent on offenders rather than on victims, as many have alleged. It was money spent in the attempt to prevent future offences.

Concerning the confessional, the first point to make is that paedophile priests simply do not go to confession. Partly this is because of the distorted thinking that is commonly part of their offence, that they have convinced themselves that what they are doing is not wrong. Partly, it is due to a fear that any priest they approach would not give them an easy absolution, but instead be very demanding indeed in terms of a 'purpose of amendment'.

If any ever did go to confession, they'd make sure it was in circumstances where they would not be recognised.

The priest hearing the confession would probably not know of the identity of the offender or of the victim, and so would have no specific crime to report. Furthermore, if a single priest broke the seal of confession and reported the matter to the police, that would be the last time any paedophile priest confessed to anything anywhere.

If such a priest came to me, I would be aware that I was dealing with the rare case of a paedophile priest who still had something left of his conscience, and I would try to use that opportunity.

I would remind him of the essential requirement of a 'purpose of amendment' or firm intention not to sin again, and that the very high rate of reoffending in this field was notorious. I would tell him that by means of mere words he was not able to give me any satisfactory guarantee that he would never offend again.

I would say that both he and I could have any confidence in his promise only if he took serious and concrete practical steps to ensure that he would not offend again.

If I thought the atmosphere would allow it, I might mention the police as a means of facing his responsibilities and putting the past behind him, but I'd be aware that this might send him running from the confessional. If that path were not open, I'd discuss other practical possibilities. I'd suggest he enrol for treatment and bring me back proof that he had done so. If we then talked about absolution, we'd both have more confidence that it was real.

If he were not willing to take these practical steps, I would tell him that I really could not believe in his purpose of amendment and so could not in conscience before God and the community give him absolution.

My actions here would once again depend on the community recognising treatment as being better than nothing and allowing for its possibility.

The seal of the confessional is a very high value. If one priest started breaking it, we would enter a subjective world in which different priests used different criteria and in which no one would ever confess, not just to sexual abuse, but to anything at all that anyone might consider a crime. We would then lose the opportunity for change and healing that the confessional can provide.

In 52 years as a priest I have never had to face a conflict situation over the seal of the confessional and sexual abuse, and I don't believe I ever shall. Having said that, I know that life is full of the most extraordinary events and I pray sincerely that I never face a situation where I was convinced that an innocent minor would be abused unless I broke the seal. I believe I would find it impossibly difficult to live with that abuse on my conscience.


Geoffrey Robinson headshotBishop Geoffrey Robinson is former auxiliary bishop of Sydney and author of Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church. 


 


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'Sometimes we have to choose between punishment and prevention'. Perhaps, but if that is the case, it is surely the role of the State, not the Church, to make that choice. Who gave any priest the right to usurp the prerogative of state? It's statements like this that reinforce the view of many that the Church has been, and still is, holding itself above the law, and why its hierarchy is not trusted.

Ginger Meggs 23 November 2012

The world is full of shonky operators, so the Catholic church is far from lonely in adopting its selective moral code here. Tax minimising schemes run by dodgy accountants and entered into greedily by their clients are in the same boat, for instance. But we do not live in a Taliban run nation-state, so no religion should have any system for avoiding the state laws, which is what the Roman Catholic church has now and is hoping to retain.

janice wallace 23 November 2012

GM, if the Catholic Church is as she claims, the one true Church, then the state has no right to interfere with her laws any more than the state has the right to make laws in conflict with the natural law eg, recognizing "same sex marriage", or the laws of nature, eg, abolishing gravity on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The state would be acting beyond power. In that sense, the Church is indeed "above the law". But She is not in conflict with all good law, and is in fact a guarantor of good and just law, if only all states and kingdoms would see it. Christ is King here and now, and insofar as that is recognized and appropriated, the world becomes a better place for everyone.

HH 23 November 2012

Bishop Robinson, This piece should be presented as it is, unchanged and uncomplicated, to the Royal Commission. Like you, I have always believed that no criminal is likely to rush off to confess to a priest in the knowledge that the priest will immediately turn him/her over to the authorities. Unless he or she is stark raving mad, of course!

john frawley 23 November 2012

Excellent reasoning.I agree with the statement to be made available to the Royal Commission. As for HH I can only say we are living in a democracy with a separation of State and Church, and the nominal Catholic Church only represent some 25 % of the population. Nobody will buy the argument of a true church, since all Christian Churches will claim to be true.Bishop Geoffrey is the only one from the Hierarchy who appears to present a credible statement on a very important issue.

Peter M 23 November 2012

Bishop Geoffrey your are our "Ruby" above price..BUT...I cant help thinking the"Stocks" and public flogging for repeat offenders may be a deterrents for those that fall at "every" hurdle and relish their sinful ways.

john m costigan 23 November 2012

Thank you Bishop Robinson, this clarifies the doubt I had about the treatment centre and its purpose, and also the questions surrounding the seal of confession. At the heart of this terrible injustice the church is being defensive. I am hoping the coming Bishops' Conference will be one where all bishops are able to voice their concerns and wholeheartedly put their energy into supporting victims. Parishes are secondary victims and unless there is transparency and the laity has more voice there will be little structural change ,or "pruning dead wood".We have been struggling for decades with recurrent pedophile priests.Our anger and sadness is overwhelming, and I feel Cardinal Pell should have acted to bring justice long ago. He has damaged the church reputation, as a most senior statesman arrogantly dismissing victims of some 'misdoings' and justifying/hiding/protecting criminals. He remains responsible and accountable while he enjoys this privileged position. He cannot have it both ways.The church now is not being victimised! This reaction is extremely insulting to victims.Cardinal Pell has not realised anything except he is now being lawfully held to account. To claim no authority over parishes is a weak excuse,(there seems to be loop holes for him everywhere he turns).

Catherine 23 November 2012

Thank you once again, Bishop Geoffrey for your clear introspection on the subject of sacramental confession. For me it counters the much argued position of dispensing with the seal of the confessional. Too much assumption and misunderstanding has been conveyed in the secular media on this perceived solution to child abuse by religious.

John A 23 November 2012

While it may be extremely rare or non existant for a paedophile priest or brother to confess their crime, I wonder how many victims,who felt uncomfortable and wrong about the acts being perpetrated on them, relieved their burden during confession? I suspect that this may have been more likely. How many priests I wonder heard such 'confessions' but did nothing either due to the sanctity of confession or for fear of bringing shame on one of their own. The seal of confession thereby becomes a handy defence for not reporting such crimes.

Margaret 23 November 2012

The nature of the contract between the penitent and the confessor is one of absolute secrecy, including the less known obligation for the penitent not to talk about what the confessor said. That is the framework in which both priest and penitent enter into the confessional. That is a natural obligation freely enter4ed into. Unless there were to be a rewriting of the moral/canon/theological code which is the basis of confession there can be no divulging, for whatever purpose. As Geoff suggests the approach to confession could be material for a fuller dialogue about responsibility and refusal to give absolution. But even if the Church decided to change the law it could not be retrospective. The contract and the context at the time remain. In these grave and challenging matters there will be outrage,desire for punishment and vindictiveness. In the search for solutions all kinds of remedies will be voiced. However outrage, suffering and damage are not good bases for future constructive action, thought they come form heartfelt persons they will not make good new processes. Parents of a victim may want to kill the offender, but that extreme reaction would not make for good community safety.

Michael D. Breen 23 November 2012

Bishop Robinson, I await an unequivocal retraction re 'inviolability of the seal' in the public and secular media.

father john george 23 November 2012

PM, much of what you say I agree with, and doesn't gainsay my point. It's no news that political regimes past, present and future routinely legislate and act beyond their rightful sphere of power, and thus attack the common good. The true limits of that power imposed by the natural law, the law of nature and the laws of the true Church, are not in any way altered by the fact that the acting state happens to be democratically elected by, say, a wide non-(or anti-)Catholic majority, and is doing so with sincerity. Thus, for example: a democratic state ought never legislate to kill, maim, or enslave a class of innocent human beings. That every eligible citizen has voted to support the measure is no bearing on this judgement whatsoever.

HH 23 November 2012

The only position of Bishop Robinson's that I ever disagreed was his retirement! I so wish you had stayed on, Geoffrey. Putting aside the immediate issues of clerical sexual abuse of children, the treatment & prevention of offenders Vs their prosecution & punishment, perhaps this is our opportunity to question the origins, rationale and importance of the 'seal of confession'. Maybe it's time to revisit the Gospel simplicity of Christ's foundation of this sacrament: 'Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you shall retain they are retained'. Nothing from Jesus about confidentiality, seals or privilege there. What is there is the confessor's choice to forgive (absolve) or retain (withhold absolution), and an implicit expectation that confessors will exercise due care and responsibility in make thing that choice. If absolution of sins that are also serious crimes against persons, was withheld until the penitent provided evidence of reporting his/her own crimes to the police and other appropriate state agencies, the confessor (priest or bishop)would be following properly the simple sacrament of confession as Jesus instituted it. The church might then be seen to privilege victims over perpetrators - a stance essential to 'the imitation of Christ'.

Dr Frank Donovan 23 November 2012

I am so grateful for the work that Bishop Geoffrey Robinson has done over so many years, I am also aware that he is held in high regard by many clinicians, doctors, nurses, psychologists, many not of the catholic faith, who have found his book a great help to them. Why he has been so sidelined by Cardinal Batista Re and our own Bishops Conference is a mystery. He has stood for integrity in the face of these terrible crimes and tried so desperstely to address these matters in our church. I agree with the Royal Commission we will hopefully get to the core of these problems. This will be a much tougher test for our church than we could ever imagine. It is a situation that is testing faith in the institution of our church, as a lifelong committed Catholic I am struggling to see the wood for the trees. Margaret M.Coffey

Margaret M.Coffey 23 November 2012

Geoffery Robinson, Could you please explain in The Catechism of the Catholic Church - PART TWO THE CELEBRATION OF THE CHRISTIAN MYSTERY - SECTION TWO THE SEVEN SACRAMENTS OF THE CHURCH - CHAPTER TWO THE SACRAMENTS OF HEALING- ARTICLE 4 - THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE AND RECONCILIATION. What is exactly meant by the following words that Jesus spoke to his apostles? 1485 "On the evening of that day, the first day of the week," Jesus showed himself to his apostles. "He breathed on them, and said to them: 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained"' (Jn 20:19, 22-23). http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c2a4.htm

Myra 23 November 2012

I agree with Ginger Meggs. Bishop Robinson, I don't doubt you to be a man of integrity, but it was simply not for either you or the Church to make the choice between reporting or treatment. Those men had committed criminal acts. You may well believe that the treatment centre did 'a great deal of good', but that's simply not the point. We have the rule of law for a reason. It is not for individuals (or hierarchical organisations). to make the decision on how to best deal with offenders of serious crimes. No wonder the general public looks at the church with such disdain.

KD 23 November 2012

HH, in the eyes of the State, canon law carries no more weight than the rules of association of any corporation, association, or club because that's all they are. That said, canon law, like rules of association, can be anything you like, unless they conflict with the law of the state when the law of the state must prevail. Otherwise, we will have a state within a state. Or is that what you are advocating?

Ginger Meggs 23 November 2012

GM, I can understand you might have a Hegelian view of the State as the summum bonum. But you must understand that on a site that at least purports to be Catholic, the view that a given state's assessment as to its own legitimate powers and limits must ipso facto be the correct view, might be just a little contentious. In the traditional formulation, the state exists to promote the common good. But the state does not arrogate to itself the privilege of deciding what the common good is. The latter is prior to the state, as is (eg) what constitutes family, marriage, and so forth. So, the true Church is not a "state within a state". It, and/or the truths it safeguards, ground the possibility that a state be a good state. Just as its truths ground the possibility that you or I be saints.


God, Church, state, family, individual. It's an organic hierarchy, sadly unknown in today's world - to its manifest undoing.

HH 23 November 2012

Fr John George, Could you please explain what is exactly meant by the following words that Jesus spoke to his apostles? If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained"'

Myra 24 November 2012

"...if one single person had been reported to the police, the entire treatment program would have closed down permanently the same day, for no offender would ever again come near it".

I understood that Encompass treated ministers with a variety of problems, including inappropriate but consensual sexual relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, depression and other mental illnesses. Surely the program would not have ceased as a result of only pederasts not attending?

Anon 24 November 2012

Ginger Meggs, we already suffer from what you describe, a state-within-a-state. As far as Christians are concerned, they serve Jesus/God above mere mortal and owe allegiance to Him, not to fellow man down here on Earth. Ontop of which, we all suffer from the parallel state situation where religions, all of them, are granted exemptions from taxes, like states are, while we mere mortals pick up this wasteful tab. Our local rates are higher because churches and religious organisations pay no rates. Our taxes are higher because religions are gifted government work but pay no taxes on their ill-gotten profits. Income tax laws are bent to allow pastors/vicars etc tax free wages, while we all have to pay tax as PAYG punters to subsidise them all. PLus, religions can discriminate against people (very full of Jesus love, eh?) whereas we cannot. Religions bludge where others pay their way.

janice wallace 24 November 2012

Myra Jesus words exegeted by BY 2000 years magisterium,denote that if a priest withholds absolution,sins mentioned in confession lack sacramental forgiveness, though in danger of death a perfect act of contrition justifies unto salvation, if confession unavailable though desired.

father john george 25 November 2012

People who live in a glass house have to answer the door.

Mark 26 November 2012

Good question, Myra.

Bernstein 26 November 2012

HH, so you would make all civil states subject to the 'One True Church' and its canon law? Like another Holy Roman Empire? Or a Caliphate where all civil law is subject to Sharia Law? Where the definition of the 'common good' is the prerogative of an unelected religious hierarchy? Even on this website, you've got to be joking. But out in the real world where the first two elements of your 'organic hierarchy' are at the very least suspect your views would be laughed out of court except for the fact that they lead directly to the sort of problems for which the 'One True Church' is at last being held accountable.

Ginger Meggs 26 November 2012

GM, I'm a Catholic, so I adhere to the teaching of the Church; "Thus the empire of our Redeemer embraces all men. To use the words of Our immortal predecessor, Pope Leo XIII: "His empire includes not only Catholic nations, not only baptized persons who, though of right belonging to the Church, have been led astray by error, or have been cut off from her by schism, but also all those who are outside the Christian faith; so that truly the whole of mankind is subject to the power of Jesus Christ."" (Quas Primas, n. 18) Naturally, I don't expect anyone who is not a Catholic to believe this doctrine - why would they? And to impose it coercively on an unbelieving nation would invariably be imprudent, even if beneficiaries, such as the unborn in our own society, or, say, the erstwhile victims of practices such as suttee, or polygamy, be numerous. Those facts don't entail the doctrine is therefore untrue. It's logically possible that most people on earth are mistaken: that Christ is King, after all, and that their mistake has had negative consequences.

HH 26 November 2012

It is true that it is the Priest, in persona Christi (in Roman Catholicism, the priest acts in the person of Christ in pronouncing the words that comprise part of a sacramental rite. For example, in the Mass, the Words of Institution, by which the bread becomes the Body of Christ and the wine becomes the Precious Blood. The priest and bishop act in the person of Christ the head in their leadership of the Church), who forgives us our sins in the Sacrament of Confession. Christ definitively conferred this salvific gift, this gratuitous action of Divine Mercy, on the Catholic priests in order that they distribute it often. In fact, the Sacrament of Confession is one of the most important ministries proper to the duly ordained Catholic priest.

Bernstein 26 November 2012

Thanks HH. I have no problem with you or anyone adhering to the teaching of your Church or their particular religion, so long only as it does not harm others. I also agree that it is ‘logically possible’ that most people are mistaken, in fact I’d say that it is logically possible and indeed highly probable that any person, including you, me, the author of this article, and even the Pope, are frequently mistaken. And I acknowledge that you say it would be ‘imprudent’ (I think a better word would have been ‘improper’) for you (or any believers) to impose your or their views on an ‘unbelieving nation’. The problem is that the hubris which invariably goes with considering oneself one of the ‘chosen peoples’ or one who has access to the 'TRUTH' is that they, more often than not, those people who, sometimes deliberately (eg Harradine and Abbott re RU486, the US bishops re Obama care, the Philippines church re the health care bill), and sometimes perhaps without thinking (eg the author of this article in respect of punishment vs prevention), DO seek impose the teachings of their particular group on the wider community.

Ginger Meggs 26 November 2012

One thing that noone has ever mentioned is what does the fact that some/most/all paedophile priests were supposedly simultaneously performing their priestly role/function as the person who received the confessions of others. Could such people be in any sense fit and proper persons to absolve the sins of others or grant absolution in the name of God. Furthermore such people make an obvious mockery of the presumed sacredness of the confessional. Would such monsters have confessed to their own crimes in the confessional? I think not.

John 27 November 2012

Always remember +Robinson, penitents tell their sins to God through the Priest; God never breaks the confessional seal, but waits until the Eschatalogical Royal Commission[General Judgement] when all is revealed and seals broken, meanwhile sacerdotal lips are soldered together!

father john george 28 November 2012

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson concludes: ‘I pray sincerely that I never face a situation where I was convinced that an innocent minor would be abused unless I broke the seal. I believe I would find it impossibly difficult to live with that on my conscience’.

I am a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee (USA), a canon lawyer, and an advocate for victims/survivors of Catholic clergy sexual abuse of minors. After reading Bishop Robinson’s reflection, I found myself wanting to look at the seal anew and perhaps from what would be for me a new perspective. More precisely, I wanted to see what the Bible and Catholic Church teachings contribute to the discussion. Here is what I found.

In the Gospel according to Matthew (Mt. 15:3-12), Jesus declares that certain Pharisees and scribes are sinners when he says to them, ‘You break the commandments of God’ by distorting the fourth commandment. Apparently, this declaration of their sin was public because in verse 12 Jesus’ disciples say to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?’

In the Gospel according to John (Jn. 8:1-11), one day while Jesus was in the temple area some scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught in adultery, asking if she should be stoned to death as Moses had prescribed. Remaining silent, Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But, when they continued asking him, Jesus said to them, ‘Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’. Then, he bent down again and continued to write on the ground and those scribes and Pharisees went away. Did Jesus remind them of their sins and publicly reveal those sins?

Both stories seem to demonstrate Jesus’ willingness to publicly reveal the sins of specific persons.

Moving on to the Church’s teachings, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) has much to say. To begin, during the early centuries of the Church, public penances were given for particularly grave sins, thus showing an absence of secrecy, perhaps not unlike the examples of Jesus in the Gospels. But, at least by the seventh century the Church had developed the practice of private confession that was performed in secret between the penitent and the priest (CCC 1447). In time, the requirement of secrecy became law in the Church and the seal of confession was established and declared by the Church authority, and it is important to note that the seal is established by Church authority, not directly by God (CCC 1467).

But, what is the foundation of the seal and can the Church alter the seal?

Truth stands at the heart of human actions and speech (CCC 2468). But the right to communication about the truth is not unconditional (CCC 2488), thus acknowledging the value of confidentiality as a matter of justice (CCC 2492). We simply don’t have the right to know everything about everyone. Hence, confidentiality as a matter of justice provides the basis for the seal of confession (CCC 2489-2490).

Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor; justice promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good (CCC 1807). That is, justice is not simply the relationship between persons or entities and God. Justice also must include the common good of society as a whole. Consequently, the common good must be taken into account when deciding to be silent or not to be silent (CCC 2489).

So, could Church authority now declare an exception to the seal in matters pertaining to sexual abuse of a minor by a priest? Yes. The Pope could alter the seal, but would it be wise for him to do so?

The Sacrament of Penance entails both God’s forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church (CCC 1440). To frustrate sinners from seeking the sacrament, such as by altering the seal, could frustrate the responsibility that Christ gave to the Church to reconcile sinners.

At the same time, however, Jesus would want children protected because while they are maturing to adulthood they cannot thoroughly protect themselves.

Bishop Robinson’s reflection has contributed an important perspective to the discussion about the seal of confession. Now I offer an additional perspective to the discussion.

While the Catholic Church is able to alter the seal of confession, the Church community, especially the Pope and the Bishops, needs to address the pros and cons of doing so, thus establishing the role of the seal of confession in our current day. The effort won’t be easy. But, the effort is necessary.

Reverend James E. Connell, JCD 29 November 2012

Reverend James E. Connell, JCD! You have 2 Achilles heels: historical and ecclesiological: historically: "That secret confession was the more general practice in the early Church is the more common view of scholars. B. Poschmann regards favorably E. Vacandard's opinion that the only publicity required was in the acts of satisfaction, not in the confession."[New Catholic Encyclopaedia-2003 update] Ecclesiologically: the magisterium is the authoritative voice of God[PETRINE COMMISSION] re doctrine on faith and morals-aside from ccc and cic ETC the violation of the seal is authoritatively censured in decree by pope and bishops in council eg 4th Lateran Council upholding the sacramental seal of confession with conciliar collegial authority. whatever the opinion of a canonist I stand 4 square with the solemn actions of the magisterium and 2000 years of inviolable seal teaching

father john george 29 November 2012

Another element, missed by Dr Connel, was that in the primitive church, private confidential confession was so in vogue, that alongside sacramental private confession of grave sins to hierarchy,there was historically verifiable, non sacramental confession in private! Such being.in fact, non-sacramental confidential private confession to fellow lay people[reputed 'saints',or spiritual directors.] Such were far removed from public penance and satisfaction, after private confession to priests, within public 'paraliturgy[such former lay confessions did not suffice for sacramental confession OF GRAVE SIN, and absolution by a priest[but were in the manner of spiritual direction between laity] [Such parallel non sacramental private LAY confessions and absolutions between laity faded with time after early church,due to abuses, [though discussed even by Aquinas in Middle Ages.] I mention this non sacramental absolution of lighter sins by the laity to laity privately, to underscore the role of early church desire for 'private confidential' confession contrary to the debatable reductionisms of non secretive, public confession! Such highly nuanced less favoured public confessions resembled more our second rite[with individual confession to priests,though folowed-in early church-by public penance and public satisfaction though in the East, bishops acted against some proclaiming there sins publicly["as if in a theatre". The notion of a proliferation of early church anachronistic 3rd rites, is at best debatable, wishful thinking and a poor argument against the inviolable seal.

father john george 29 November 2012

GM: OK. But whether or not the Catholic religion "harms others" re. abortion is surely the debatable issue. If abortion doesn't amount to the slaying of innocent humans, or some moral equivalent, then U.S. bishops railing against Obamacare can indeed be construed as a form of gross imposition. But if those same bishops are right about abortion, then, yes, they're imposing their views. But only to prevent a greater, indeed drastically irrevocable, imposition. No?

HH 03 December 2012

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