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Circumscribing the seal of the confessional

  • 20 August 2018


In November 2016, I was asked about the seal of the confessional and told the Australian: 'If a law is introduced to say that a priest should reveal a confession, I'm one of those priests who will disobey the law.' On 3 December 2016, I had the opportunity to explain myself, writing in the Weekend Australian: '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. Not one child will be saved by abolishing the seal of the confessional. With the seal intact, the occasional paedophile might find a listening ear to assist with the decision to turn himself in.'

This brought me to the attention of Justice Peter McClellan's royal commission. He called me to appear before his commissioners on 9 February 2017 alongside the respected canon lawyer Fr Ian Waters who explained that the seal of the confessional covered the sins of the penitent, but not other matters. I agreed with Fr Waters.

I gave the example of a little girl Sally who comes to confession and tells me that she stole the jelly beans and that her stepfather did something nasty to her. I said that I could never reveal or act upon Sally's confession of having stolen the jelly beans, but I could act on Sally's assertion about her stepfather in the same way as I could if the assertion were made outside the confessional. It would be a matter of pastoral prudence and care for Sally and her family.

There was a difference of opinion on the panel, with the one bishop in attendance, Bishop Terence Curtin, who was chair of the Bishops' Commission for Doctrine and Morals, varying his testimony to agree more with the position put by Fr Waters. I put a suggestion:

FATHER BRENNAN: Could I suggest the appropriate course would be to have Bishop Terry's committee of the Bishops Conference put in a particular submission to you articulating what is the received theological view of the Catholic Church in Australia on the seal of the confessional?


THE CHAIR: Will we get one view?

BISHOP CURTIN: Yes, you would.

FATHER BRENNAN: That's the advantage of a hierarchy, your Honour.

A panel of the most senior archbishops was then to appear before the commission on 24 February 2017.