Breaking the seal for the common good



The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has recommended that the Catholic 'seal of confession' should not exempt priests from a proposed offence of 'failure to report'. That offence would apply to any failure to report to police in circumstances where a person knew, suspected, or should have suspected that a person associated with their institution had sexually abused a child.

ConfessionalThe proposed law is focused on likely continued offending and is intended to get paedophiles off the streets. The Royal Commission wanted to ensure that, wherever possible, known paedophiles are not at large and free to sexually abuse children.

The response of some Catholic commentators has threatened defiance of any such civil law by confessors, despite the Church's stated commitment to the more effective protection of children. At a time when the issue of religious freedom is receiving publicity, this issue goes to the heart of current state/church relations.

Though few Catholics today use sacramental confession, the seal is a key feature, providing a guaranteed assurance of confidentiality. Strict canon lawyers will argue that canon law forbids a confessor from disclosing confessed material regardless of the content, circumstances and consequences. Canon law can of course be changed.

The question raised is whether a religious confessor (Catholic or other religion) who obtains knowledge of the sexual abuse of a child, or of a child abuser, in a sacramental confession, should be bound by the proposed civil law. The Commission, having thoroughly examined the evidence before it, decided that no religious confessor should be exempted from the mandatory requirement to report.

Any person who sexually abuses a child is a continuing danger to children. The requirement to report is based on substantial evidence of the past failures of institutional personnel to report. The consequence was predators remaining at large and more abuse.

In April 2010 the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gave permission to bishops to report child sexual abuse by clergy to the civil authorities, but only where there were civil criminal mandatory reporting laws. Up to 2017 such laws existed only in NSW and Victoria. The Royal Commission has recommended that such laws be introduced throughout Australia.


"Governments legislate for the common good, for all citizens. They must not be thwarted by customs or laws of particular religions which could threaten the common good."


All Australian governments are now supportive of mandatory reporting but are cautious about exempting information gained in a sacramental confession. Politicians are being pressured by church representatives to back away from what they say is an attack on the religious freedom and sacred doctrinal position which will lead to civil disobedience.

As the Commission noted, religious freedom cannot be absolute. No society should necessarily exempt religions from laws made for the common good. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that religious freedom may be the subject of such limitations to protect public safety, order, health, morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Most Australians would hope that any citizen would bring to the attention of the police any knowledge of criminal plans to harm society, be it the sexual abuse of children or a terrorist plot to blow up the MCC on Grand Final day. They would not expect an exception to be granted to secular or religious professionals in their professional roles.

Yet they are being asked to make an exception for knowledge acquired in a sacramental confession because it is covered by a seal that some consider should be protected by virtue of religious freedom. Against that argument, for the common good and above all for the safety of an innocent child (the paramount good), should any person with that knowledge be exempted from a moral and legal obligation to report to the civil authorities?

The arguments for exemption of the seal ignore or deny the harm to children that can arise from failure to report. They claim that the law would be ineffective because few paedophiles go to confession, their identity can be hidden from the confessor, and they might not confess if the seal did not apply.

These arguments are conjectural and ignore the basic principle that all possible harm to a child must be forestalled. The seal is a provision of canon law that can be varied, and its application to known future crimes against society has long been the subject of much debate throughout the Church's history.

The Royal Commission's recommendation comes in the wake of massive church failures to protect children from sexual abuse. The evidence shows that churches, and particularly the Catholic Church, chose to protect the abusers within its ranks, rather than protect vulnerable children. It seems to have learnt little from its tragic failure in its duty of care, and its criminal complicity in implementing a cover-up of the abuse. It continues to deny that its institutional failures ruined the lives of thousands of innocent children.

Arguments for exemption implicitly assert the innate superiority of church law over civil law. They see no need to review canon law in light of the Commission's evidence and conclusions, or even to adjust current practice within canon law. Bishops could today mandate all confessors to refuse absolution to paedophiles unless and until they have reported themselves to the police, but they have not done so.

Governments legislate for the common good, for all citizens. They must not be thwarted by customs or laws of particular religions which could threaten the common good. Arguments that seek to exempt anyone from a civil law that mandates the reporting of a known continuing danger to children, on the basis of religious freedom, are not well founded. Jesus made no exemptions when he said it would be better to be drowned with a millstone rather than harm a child. Neither should we.


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Peter JohnstonePeter Johnstone is a member of Catholics for Renewal. He gave public evidence to the Royal Commission on the governance panel in the Catholic 'wrap-up' hearings in February 2017. Peter is chair of the board of Jesuit College of Spirituality. The views expressed in this piece are personal.

Topic tags: Peter Johnstone, Seal of Confession, Royal Commission, clergy sexual abuse



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Existing comments

It will be interesting to see where this 'for the common good' excuse goes next. Unlimited access to abortion? 'It's for the common good'. Assisted suicide for the dying and elderly 'it's for the common good'. 'Diminished rights for the disabled' : 'it's for the common good'. Locking up suspected terrorists without evidence .... 'it's for the common good'. Detaining asylum seekers off shore ??? ... some would even argue this is for the common good. It would be great to see Fr Frank Brennan respond to this article - after all he awakened this concept of 'for the common good' -in his support for same sex marriage.
Cathy | 18 July 2018

Thank you Peter for a thoughtful paper on a very controversial topic. It must be very difficult for the clergy to be faced with excommunication if they break the seal of confession. There are also practical implications here that a paedophile is unlikely to confess if he knows that mandatory reporting would be a consequence. There may also be a lost opportunity to counsel an individual. In addition, like matters such as the confidentiality between a medical doctor and a patient and a lawyer and client would also need to be considered. But, as Christians, we must ask – ‘What would Jesus do?’ The gospels are clear that Jesus had a special place in His heart for children. Accordingly, in choosing between a ‘man-made rule’ or following the gospels, we as Catholics must follow the gospels. We cannot fall into the trap of becoming modern day Pharisees.
Garry Nolan | 18 July 2018

The only effect of legislation to break the seal will be to stop any slight chance that a paederast might confess his/her sin. Oh, yes, I forgot - it will also change the attitude of most practising Catholics, who only have rare recourse to the Sacrament, but who value its availability under the seal. In any case, no child will be saved. That's the bottom line.
Joan Seymour | 18 July 2018

How can a law that encroaches upon a fundamental expression and right of religious freedom advance the common good? And what evidence is there that children's safety will actually be enhanced by the same legislation?
John | 18 July 2018

The tawdry tale of senior clergy covering up instances of child sexual abuse by some priests and members of religious orders inaugurated a righteous disgust and dismay among members of the church and interested onlookers from the wider community. A procession of perpetrators into prison yards was a just, if belated response to the actual acts of abuse. But what is yet to be addressed effectively is the collapse of confidence in church leaders to be what they said they would be: servants of the Gospel and loyal shepherds of their flock rather than skilled equivocators of misinformation, punctuated by the occasional sorry statement It is this unassuaged anger that has found a focus in seeking to breach the Seal of the Confessional. But, it won't happen and, eventually, will be seen not to need to happen. The thousands of pages of evidence collected by the Royal Commission failed to argue the case. The very few references to perpetrators and confession were simply tabled but not analysed. A pity – for confessors and psychologists could have provided relevant testimony: People do not confess what they consider to be right and good; paedophiles consider their orientation and actions to be right and good; hence, a priest/religious paedophile would not feel any necessity or inclination to confess those behaviours; they may well have acknowledged that they had broken their vow of celibacy/chastity but omitted any reference to the age of their “partner.” It is possible some paedophiles made a mockery of the sacrament and the seal. But what is at stake is a deeper truth. The confessional stands as a Catholic expression of God's hospitality and engagement with forgiveness - extending sanctuary to any human in a moment when personal frailty and responsibility are the focus of what has been done and what needs to be done next. This is a common good worth protecting.
Bill Burke | 19 July 2018

Jesus did not say anything about harming a child. What he did say (according to the gospels) was, "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea" (Mark 9:42 NRSV). There's nothing else in the New Testament about children being followers or believers in Jesus, so it seems more likely that the "little ones" referred to here mean the ordinary, grass-roots believers in Jesus. In any case, Jesus invariably used love, not law and punishment, as the means of overcoming evil. I'm convinced that pedophilia is some kind of sickness or disorder, and until we start to approach it that way - until we acknowledge that pedophiles are human beings with an illness, not inhuman monsters - we will not get very far. On this specific matter of forcing priests by law to break the seal of the confessional: I don't see how it can be for the common good since it is likely to be unworkable. Most, if not all, priests will refuse to go along with it, not because they don't care about children's safety (they do) but because the importance of the seal has been so strongly drummed into them. It would be better to focus our attention on ways we can ALL work together to genuinely protect children.
Cathy Taggart | 19 July 2018

" . . . personal frailty and responsibility . . ." I agree, Bill Burke, with your recognition of the importance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in dealing with very human realities but I wonder how many, even among Catholics, do, when contemporary western culture seems to be in retreat from traditional moral and metaphysical understandings of personal evil and sin, and the Christian belief in God's forgiving grace as a remedy - preferring instead only psycho-social and ideological notions of them; if, indeed they are acknowledged at all? The current cultural air we breathe seems saturated and settled with merely secular analysis and responses to deeper aspects of the human condition.
John | 20 July 2018

Peter Johnstone's key argument is that canon law can be changed. It can. But the canon is simply making evident what the nature of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is, a person's sacred conversation with God asking for forgiveness, with the priest as moderator. Changing canon law doesn't change the sacramental reality. Peter is making the wrong argument for any change. It's an easy argument for anyone who does not believe in Christ's sacraments.
Paul | 20 July 2018

Hear! Hear! Paul. Thank you for pointing out that the essential signature of Christ's Church (Catholicism and its Eastern Rite equivalents) is its sacramentality- something that we should cherish, not seek to alter.
john frawley | 20 July 2018

In 2004, Queensland paedophile, Fr Michael McArdle admitted to child abuse on 1500 occasions. In an affidavit, Father McArdle stated he had confessed 1500 times to molesting children to 30 different priests over a 25-year period. After being forgiven 1500 times in face-to-face confessions with his fellow priests, he was told to 'pray more'. In an affidavit McArdle stated how he made full confessions about his crimes. After each confession, ' was like a magic wand had been waved over me.' McArdle was jailed for six years in 2004. after pleading guilty to indecently dealing with two girls and 14 boys, aged eight to 13, between 1965 and 1987. Father McArdle told journalists the church was aware of his offences but never reported them to police. Last month, a church minister abused as a child in a confessional, appealed to acting Adelaide Bishop Greg O'Kelly to change his stance on confession. A number of case studies examined by the Australian Royal Commission confirmed that such soliciting of young children in the confessional had occurred in Australia. Inquiries and hearings overseas produced convincing evidence that priest sex abusers used confession as a means of assuaging their guilt. It made it easier for them to repeat their crimes because confession was always available.” Those arguing for the church to be excepted from Australia's civil laws aimed at protecting and safeguarding children from abuse in the confessional, must firstly review the teachings of the Christian founder and first preacher.
PBoylan | 20 July 2018

I have a legal question. How can you obtain evidence of what was said in the confessional taking into account the fact that there are no, repeat, no records of any kind. With no evidence, how can you launch a prosecution with the possibility of a conviction beyond reasonable doubt. So, with no evidence and no possibility of a conviction, what is the point of the law, unless, of course, the priest will automatically be assumed to be guilty and instead of the prosecution having to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt the onus will be on defendant to prove innocence. I am not a legal expert so I would appreciate if some one can enlighten me as to how this law will work.
Brian Leeming | 20 July 2018

There are at least two cases in history of Catholic priests who chose to be put to death by tyrannical governments rather than reveal what was said to them in the Sacrament of Confession. I am confident that no Australian priest would commit this sacrilege if such a draconian law were introduced here. However, since Mr Johnstone doesn't seem to realise just how the Sacrament of Confession works, then let's just imagine for him what would happen if a priest did decide to make such a report. Confession is anonymous. Even if the priest happened to know or work out who the penitent was, no details are sought or provided concerning the date of the sin, who the other person involved was, the ages of the respective people (and hence whether it might be a civil crime) or where it was committed. Mr Johnstone and the Commissioners seem to think that going to Confession is like filling in a police charge sheet. They were told all this in evidence during the Commission but they made this absurd recommendation anyway. Apparently for no other reason than to bash the church.
Peter K | 23 July 2018

And surely Cathy, the Church's argument against equality of access to civil marriage was also based on the Church's version of 'the common good'? If it wasn't, what right did the Church claim for trying to impose its view on the rest of society?
Ginger Meggs | 23 July 2018

Yes Brian, it may prove difficult to secure a conviction against a priest but surely that's not the point of the proposal. Nor, I imagine, is the purpose of the proposed law to get irrefutable evidence that would convict an abuser. In many successful prosecutions of crime it's the tip-off that gets the investigation started, the reported suspicion, or the other scraps of evidence that taken singly mean nothing but which together provide a coherent whole. If mandatory reporting is good enough for other professions why not also for priests? The appeal to 'sacramentality' rings a bit hollow give the the historical record of cover-ups even when the information was gained outside of the confessional.
Ginger Meggs | 23 July 2018

Confessionals are anonymous. Could a priest identify a paedophile? What about other serious indictable offences? Catholic religious are not exclusive offenders. Many are within the family and some are parental offenders. SMH 1st July 2013 'Standing before an American court convicted of the most heinous of child sex crimes, Australian MN and long-term boyfriend PT had their double lives laid bare. ''Being a father was an honour and a privilege that amounted to the best six years of my life,'' the American-born N, told the court. Sentenced to 40 years incarceration for sexually abusing the boy, N and T had ''adopted'' after paying a Russian woman $8000 to be their surrogate in 2005. The abuse began just days after his birth." Psychologists are bound by client confidentiality. Lawyers claim client privilege. But not priests? History shows Cromwell in Drogheda, that the order of no quarter issued (because of determined resistance) meant mass murder of children and women by British troops. Should genocide be confessional protected? Peter Jackson gave solicitor a letter detailing his life story and telling of the abuse aged 16 at TSS by a former Marist brother. Legislating away the confessional seal is a knee jerk reaction.
Frank Armstrong | 23 July 2018

The “debate” about abolishing the seal of confession is, no surprise, riddled with dishonesty. After three plus years and 500 plus million dollars in legal and other expenses, how many hard examples of paedophiles confessing did the RC document? What hard evidence did the RC produce that abolishing the seal of confession would prevent or reduce child abuse? Never mind, the debate is all about gestures and is conducted as a totally false choice between protecting children and preserving the seal of confession. It is not and never has been “either/or”. These are not and never will be mutually exclusive alternatives. Be careful, too, what you wish for. How long before, say, domestic violence is added to the matters not protected by the seal of confession? It’s very hard to see a relevant distinction the way the debate is conducted. Any crime of violence? Non-PC thoughts? And then why only the seal of confession? What about the professional privileges of doctors, journalists, and of course, lawyers?
Michael | 27 July 2018

Thanks for this article Peter. The changes to Canon Law are absolutely necessary for the safety of children. Are we are asking the faithful to give up their "sacred conversation with God"? Certainly not! It seems they are underestimating God in this situation. You don't need Confession or a priest to be in conversation with God. However this protected confession and seal holds a power and control on earth which the Church values more than the safety of children. The future will be interesting should Civil Law be ignored. The Church's charitable status will be challenged in relation to tax exemptions and, if the government is serious about upholding Australian Law, these generous exemptions should be removed.
Patricia Hamilton | 29 July 2018

Going to confession has not featured in Catholic practice for about 30 years Peter Johnstone. And the sacrament is called Reconciliation. Has been for decades. It shows how little is known about the practice of the sacrament. How many people actually confess to child abuse, or say they’ve been abused? The anti Reconciliation argument is a convenient drum to bang in the ongoing campaign to strip the Church of what for many is a refuge and a framework for meaningful life.
Rosemary Sheehan | 30 July 2018

I find this a clearly-argued perspective, Peter. Powerful last two paragraphs. The Royal Commission findings are 'signs of the times' inviting our focussed attention and conversion.
vivien williams | 30 July 2018

Here's an old testimony from someone people prefer to forget, and libs and conservs both love to hate. Worth listening too again, in the light of this discussion about confessional seals. (especially from 2 mins 50 secs on). This is the realty of the confessional and how it results in little getting done.
Stephen de Weger | 30 July 2018

Any law requiring that confession of sexual abuse of a child be reported to the police is likely to be ignored by many priests giving precedence to their understanding of their role as confessor. A critical part of the Church trying to cover up clerical sexual abuse is that in 1922, Canon Law was changed, to prevent priests and bishops informing civil law authorities of such predatory behaviour. The current element of Canon Law permitting reporting to civil authorities only if required by civil law is a weak reflection of the pre-1922 Canon law and Church practice of handing over to civil authorities, offending priests to be dealt with according to the law of the land. The 1922 change to Canon law has facilitated, perhaps caused, the broader distribution of clerical sexual abuse, as perpetrators were moved around parishes. Only the Church can reduce the danger it has facilitated. Laws requiring priests to break the seal of confession would cause more damage to Church-State relations than reduction of further child abuse. Without crossing that line, it is likely that mandatory reporting in all states and territories, together with our post Royal Commission awareness, will significantly reduce further child abuse.
Ian Fraser | 30 July 2018

You can twist anything to suit the common good. See the work of George Orwell. This is a misguided attempt to deal with the scourge of pedophilia. Breaking the seal of the confession would force the church underground - and it has happened before. We all want to stop abuse - some are so simplistic as to think that breaking the seal of the confession would aid this. Really? Just utopian thinking.
Alice Larkin | 30 July 2018

What we have now is a situation where there is a clash of laws: Catholic (Canon) Church law and established Australian law which currently compels the reporting of abuse to Police. The religious are asking for a special exemption. So, we have a decision to make. A massive change of attitude was required to even consider this law, yet here we are. Change has to start sometime no matter how awkward or difficult it might seem. The recent Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart & prominent Jesuit Fr Frank Brennan have publicly stated they will disobey this new law. The fact that certain Priests say they won’t obey this should not influence this decision as the safety of children should be the highest priority. Unfortunately we cannot trust priests and the church to prioritise the safety of children as they have continually proved they don’t. What this law will do is to clearly state that in the matter of child abuse, priests are the same as everyone else in society and should be held to the same standards. I have no doubt it will be resisted by the Catholic Church and it may well take a few generations to be accepted, but that doesn’t make it wrong. History is littered with examples of the powerful resisting change. We wouldn’t allow this system of non-reporting in a confessional to be allowed if it was proposed now. Nor would we consider other religious groups such as Islam or Judaism to adopt a similar practice and place a similar demand on society that their religious law outrank civil law. We need to prioritise the safety of children above all else and this new law is about doing just that.
Tim | 30 July 2018

Thank you for this article, Peter. It is long past time that that Church leaders made an unequivocal commitment to ensuring the protection and well-being of children in all its activities and amending its rules accordingly. The requirement for psychologists to report knowledge of criminal activity does not stop sincere people seeking their help.
Kevin Liston | 30 July 2018

The purpose of the proposed amendment of the law is to protect children by imposing an obligation on priests to report what predators have told them. OK, some priests say they won’t comply; and commentators like Brian Leeming say you won’t be able to get a conviction if they don’t. That’s a pity, but the obligation is still there. People ignore their legal obligations all the time if they think they have more important goals and they can get away with it - things like paying minimum wages, obeying speed limits, paying their proper tax. The majority, you would hope, recognise that the legal obligation is there for the common good and comply.
OldG | 30 July 2018

Surely a paedophile would not be given absolution if full details of his sin were known to the priest. Wouldn't the priest order the confessor to report his crime to the police before he could receive absolution? How could his confession be sincere if he has not taken every avenue to rectify what he has done? I have canvassed this idea in a novel I've written (unpublished) about a woman who did nothing to help her husband who was choking from food stuck in his throat. The priest would not give her absolution until she reported what she had done (or not done) to the police. Was my fictitious priest wrong to deny absolution?
Michael McLoon | 30 July 2018

It is worth noting that the Anglican Church in Australia moved on this in 2014 to allow its clergy to break the seal of confession on such crimes as child abuse. See:
Peter Smyth | 30 July 2018

If Canon Law requires amendment, so be it. Issues about how a mandatory reporting law would work in practice should not get in the way of what is appropriate in principle. It is a case of render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God. I see both as possible in this case. Brendan
Brendan A McCarthy | 30 July 2018

So many responses ahead of mine - this is a subject which stirs up a variety of responses. I should think that absolution within the confessional would only be guaranteed upon the instance of the paedophile priest/brother/sister having also confessed at the local police station the same day/following day - not until that record/arrest could there be any absolution. Seems quite clear to me - this is not about the number of angels dancing on pin-heads - this is about the gross abuse of power and sexual molestation/worse by persons purporting to stand between the victim of their predilections and God. Sick of mind or whatever - they must face the penalties of civil/criminal law as well.
Jim KABLE | 30 July 2018

I notice that no-one except Michael McLoon has come even close to mentioning what Jesus is reported to have taught but instead focussed on church law and practice. Firstly, Jesus was recorded as stating to his apostles when commissioning them: “whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you retain, they are retained”. The priest is not obligated to forgive and requiring the “sinner” (criminal) to report the crime to police before seeking forgiveness is perfectly fine as far as the Gospel is concerned. Secondly, the “sacrament” of “Reconciliation” is a church construct, certainly in the form of sitting anonymously in a little box opposite a priest in his own little box. Nothing in the Gospels suggests that Jesus did that or told others to do that. Thirdly, in the early church sinners came up publicly before the congregation to confess their sins. No hint of keeping things private there. So really there is no scriptural basis for this form of “sacrament” and no basis for claiming that government is violating Christian beliefs as written in the Gospels.
Frank S | 30 July 2018

By the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants the penitent pardon. This happens whether or not the confession remains secret. Secrecy or confidentiality is very important and must be maintained in almost all circumstances out of respect for the relationship between God and penitents. Secrecy is not an essential element of the sacrament however and it cannot be absolute. A new catechesis around the limits of confidentiality would be something that the people of God would be perfectly capable of understanding and it would not touch the essence of the Sacrament. The seal of the confessional is a matter of positive law whereas the inviolability of the child is a moral absolute which obviously takes precedence.
Fr Stephen Curtin S.J. | 30 July 2018

Peter Smyth. In relation to the seal of the confessional, perhaps it is worth recording that the Anglican Church is not a sacramental church. The Reformation dispensed with the Sacraments of Eucharist, Confession, Ordination to Priesthood and Extreme Unction, the anointing and forgiveness of sin in the sick and dying. The seal of confession in the Anglican Church is but a charade, an English party game.
john frawley | 30 July 2018

I had always thought that St Ignatius' view of the eternal battle between good and evil was perhaps a little fanciful. However, I am now convinced that evil has indeed waged a major offensive against Christ, in the vein of the fallen angel, Lucifer, over the last 50 years. The evil has come from within in the form of child sexual abuse and those erstwhile faithful followers who fail to forgive Christ's Church for its human failings and in so doing aid and abet those who seek through the deviousness of the Evil One to bring Christ's Church to its knees. Fortunately, evil will not prevail since Christ has said he will be with his church for "all days even to the ends of the world", despite the Lucifers amongst us. Alleged Christians might also consider being with Christ's Church "even to the ends of the world".
john frawley | 31 July 2018

Quite interesting responses to Peter's essay. As I understand Church teaching concerning Absolution in Reconciliation is; if a person confessed to child abuse but had no intention of abstaining from the offence, then his repentance is invalid and the effect of his sin remains, even if he is given Absolution by his Confessor. As Frank Brennan is already stated, he has never had such a situation occur in a confession during his priestly life. I know of no Priest who has had such a Confession made to him. My expectation is that changing the requirement of the Seal of Confession by Civil Law will only serve to further inhibit any paedophile , ordained or a layperson confessing his actions to a Priest.I completely agree with Cath's response. Where does "for the common good" end? Finally, I hope that the Hierarchy, who after all, have Pastoral Responsibility for the Catholic flock under their care, will exercise the responsibility given by Jesus and serve the community humbly, honestly and faithfully. Sadly in many cases, I am yet to see that happen. I note that Archbishop Denis Hart has now resigned.
Gavin O'Brien | 31 July 2018

A correction to my earlier post, it was Archbishop Wilson whose resignation was accepted by Pope Francis. Apologies for the error. Gavin
Gavin O'Brien | 31 July 2018

The form of the Sacrament has been changed down the centuries. Private and secret individual confession became the predominant form from the 7th Century. The Sacrament involves reconciliation with God and reconciliation with the Church community which is not a purely private matter. It is a matter for the Church community to work out what form the Sacrament should take. This Sacrament needs to be reformed to give it forms that takes account of our evolving understanding of human vulnerability and the capacities of the whole community to exercise its duties in relation to the most vulnerable.
Fr Stephen Curtin SJ | 31 July 2018

Fr Stephen, is it not possible that because of its time-honoured practice intimately connected with the Catholic Church's faith that the seal of the confessional holds more than simply the status of "positive law" - that, in fact, it is a substantive part of the Church's sacred tradition?
John | 31 July 2018

I agree with Jim Kable. Sins are not forgiven unless the penitent complies with the penance given by the priest. Priests should say something like “for your penance, say three Hail Marys (or whatever), and go straight from here to the police and tell them everything that you have told me.” Of course, lawmakers will not understand this. As a victim myself, I think that this whole mess is the result not so much of individual misbehaviour, but of the cover ups and lack of supervision by their superiors which facilitated the abuse of many more children. I was appalled by the abuse that was inflicted on me, but ever so much more appalled by the abuse inflicted on my parents by the offenders superiors. The offender should have been stopped here, but he went on to abuse more children. Church authorities have demonstrated clearly that they cannot be trusted. I personally believe in the seal of confession, but I understand perfectly why lawmakers have absolutely no confidence in our bishops to keep their own house in order, and so they, the lawmakers, have to do something about it themselves.
Joe | 31 July 2018

John Frawley. Thank you John for your interest in my post regarding Anglican confession. I respectfully point out that the Anglican tradition is indeed a sacramental church, maintaining Baptism and Eucharist as sacraments instituted by Christ, that is, in the Gospels, the same as Roman Catholicism. The other five sacraments, as in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, were not instituted by Christ in the Gospels. Marriage, for example, was not instituted by Christ, nor were Holy Orders (as we understand it), Confession, Anointing of the sick, Confirmation. However, it is important to note that the word sacrament or any derivative does not appear in the New Testament (original Koine Greek or translation). The idea and title of sacraments came later. Therefore, as a Catholic theologian, I believe we must have all these facts clear before we condemn other traditions. A read of some of the Thirty-nine articles of Religion will give a clearer explanation regarding sacraments in Anglicanism. That said, private confession in Anglicanism is taken as seriously as it is in Catholicism.
Peter Smyth | 31 July 2018

John the Catechism of The Catholic Church in paragraph 83 distinguishes between Apostolic Tradition and ecclesial traditions. Ecclesial traditions and customs are important but their forms can be adapted to different places and times to better express the great Tradition. Reform is also part of our tradition.
Fr Stephen Curtin S.J. | 31 July 2018

"The seal of confession in the Anglican Church is but a charade, an English party game." A strange way indeed of referring to an expression of the relationship between a merciful God and a penitent.
Margaret | 31 July 2018

I think the poor record of the Catholic church demands change. I can see the value of confession but in extenuating circumstances a priest should be able to put the rights of victims first. This means that the expectations of the church community would have to adjust to this new situation and they would have to know that sometimes they cannot rely on a secret being kept.
Stephen | 31 July 2018

Institutional abuse brought ‘the seal’ to the forefront; but the issue is broader than that. The challenges to Peter Johnstone's views continue the tradition of special pleading – that somehow we are above the law because ultimately we know better. Frank Brennan says, seal or not, paedophiles are unlikely to seek forgiveness. Broadly speaking that’s probably true. But we know that at least a few do ‘confess’ and then go and repeat the crime – sometimes over and over again. Frank Armstrong is wrong when he states baldly that 'psychologists are bound by confidentiality'. In my own submission to the Commission I simply made the point that psychologists and those from related professions have a duty of care and a duty to warn. We all work within an ethic that places limits on confidentiality. Clients are informed of this when they come to see us for therapeutic help. I acknowledge that there are tensions with resect to those limits and clients’ willingness to unburden themselves. I acknowledge too that legal responses to these issues are far from perfect. But in the end, it is dangerous to see the privacy of therapy as a substitute for taking personal responsibility for past or future actions. When it comes to the safety of others, priests should be bound by the same limits to confidentiality as any other professional.
Moloney Lawrence | 01 August 2018

Fr Steve, thank you for the clarification. From the reference you cite, it would certainly appear that the distinction is relevant, with the seal of the confessional belonging to the later category of "ecclesial" tradition, and thus in principle being reformable. May Catholics now suppose the question of retaining or dispensing with the seal requires a prudential response on the part of the magisterium, presumably revolving around whether a putative enhancement of child protection by removing the seal outweighs penitents' trust in the value of its retention?
John | 01 August 2018

Moloney Lawrence, since religious freedom is a universal human right, where is the "special pleading" in a Catholic maintaining that a basic expression of religious freedom, namely the sacramental ritual reconciliation, should be respected by the state?
John | 01 August 2018

The final sentence of the second last paragraph contains the necessary solution to this issue. As Frank S has noted, the oft quoted words of Jesus by Catholics who claim that a priest can act in the name of Christ to forgive also allows them to refrain from so doing. If absolution was to become conditional on a paedophile ‘outing himself to police’ then any civil law requiring mandatory reporting would be met - by the perpetrator. This procedure could mean that pardophiles no longer approach a priest to confess but it would also mean that there would be no mockery made of the sacrament either. Above all it would mean that possible future crimes against children are avoided by any who go to the sacrament; that the perpetrator receive not simply the full force of the law but also whatever help can be given to affect change towards becoming a more wholesome expression of what it means to be human; and last but not least a renewal of respect for the Catholic Church within the wider Australian community by taking positive steps to protect children and avoid cover ups of criminal activities.
Ern Azzopardi | 02 August 2018


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