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Seal of confession should remain inviolate

  • 07 December 2017


Next week the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to the Sexual Abuse of Children is scheduled to deliver its final Report. From what we have heard it seems likely it will recommend that the seal of confession should no longer be regarded in law as inviolable.

If, either through the confession of a perpetrator or the report of a victim, a priest becomes aware in the sacrament of reconciliation that the sexual abuse of a child has taken place, that priest will be obliged by law to bring the incident to the notice of the police and to identify both perpetrator and victim. The seal of confession will therefore not be protected by law in such circumstances.

The possibility of this recommendation from the royal commission has caused not a little consternation. In most contemporary western jurisdictions, the seal of confession has been legally exempt, and quite a number of films in particular have centred around this exemption, especially where a murder has been committed and confessed.

But the horrific revelations of the royal commission and the realisation of both the long-term effects of the sexual abuse of children and the addictive nature of paedophilia have led to a reassessment of the legitimacy of this exemption. Not only the royal commission but also many members of the community — and not only those hostile to religion — now think that such an exemption from the onus of reporting should no longer be accorded to priests, the perpetrators and their victims.

First, let me say that I have been a priest for almost 50 years, and I have never heard the confession of a paedophile. Paedophiles are notoriously extraordinarily secretive, and it is unlikely, even with the seal of confession still being operative, that they would expose themselves to the remotest possibility of being identified through the sacrament of reconciliation. I further suspect that, if the seal of confession is no longer exempt in law, paedophiles are even less likely to reveal themselves as perpetrators in confession.

Secondly, let me say that, unless the penitent takes steps to show who he or she is, the priest rarely has any idea of the identity of the person confessing. That's why most confessionals are dark and obscure, why there is a veil of some sort between the priest and the penitent, why most priests turn side-on when hearing confessions. It is precisely to protect the identity of the penitent.