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On breaking the seal of confession

  • 23 November 2012

Last 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