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Sex abuse action and the seal of confession


Flickr image by two stout monksPrompted by a resolve of the Irish Government to enact legislation aimed at breaching the seal of the confessional, Australian Senator Nick Xenophon threw a sectarian bomb on Thursday.

'There is no contest when it comes to protecting the innocence of a child or maintaining a religious practice,' he told reporters in Canberra. 'Why should someone be absolved of their sins ... when it comes to child abuse because they've got a pat on the back from their priest?'

There's no doubt that his bullish intervention was an affront to the Catholic Church and the principle of freedom of religion.

According to the Catholic understanding, confession is made to God through the priest, and so disclosing what is said in that conversation is to violate what is sacred.  That is why Catholic priests would consider themselves bound to go to jail rather than obey an unjust law.

To make laws about such specific practices that a significant group of people would be obliged to disobey on conscientious grounds rarely serves the common good.

But equally Senator Xenophon is reflecting the view of many Australians that religious practices must not be allowed to obstruct the course of the law, especially in cases of sexual abuse of minors involving church personnel.

Underlying Xenophon's comments is the reality that there is little basis in Australian law for priests to claim immunity from prosecution for withholding information that is subject to the seal of confession.

The Constitutions of the USA and Ireland do provide the seal with a stronger claim for protection. In some jurisdictions within Australia, including NSW, the Evidence Act provides limited recognition of the seal. The Australian Law Reform Commission could best be described as 'open minded'. But in practice, the most enduring protection that is afforded the seal of confession in this country is community goodwill.

By definition goodwill requires mutual cooperation and charity, which in turn relies on the perception that it is merited. The church sexual abuse scandals of recent decades — and their handling by Church officials — have understandably eroded much of the goodwill that would be needed to maintain respect for the seal of the confessional.

The Irish Prime Minister made this very clear last week in his unprecedented attack on the Catholic Church. In general terms, many of his points could be applied to the Australian context.

In rebuilding goodwill, it is necessary to engage with those hostile to the Church, especially if there are points of agreement. The head of Survivors Australia Nikki Wells paid the Church a compliment when she told ABC Radio on Thursday that 'in principle [the Australian bishops' sex abuse protocol] Towards Healing is a fantastic document'.

While she added that 'it's not worth the paper that it's written on because the Catholic Church itself doesn't even abide by their own protocol', her praise for their strategy is a good basis for building the bridges necessary for making a fair assessment of Catholic adherence to the protocol. That conversation in turn may ensure community support for important aspects of Catholic religious practice such as the seal of confession.

Click here for a longer version of Father Bill Uren SJ's opinion article that was published in the Fairfax press on 25 July 2011.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Nick Xenophon, confession seal, Catholic, Church, abuse, Survivors Australia



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Existing comments

The catholic church is not christian , So it should have no standing in society, If you read the bible you will see what i have written here is the truth

Michael McManus | 25 July 2011  

"Catholic priests would consider themselves bound to go to jail rather than obey an unjust law."

Well, then if it is a matter of protecting kids from being sexually abused, don't you think that priests would be more in integrity if they reported to the police that a child is or has been sexually abused? I can bet you this would keep them OUT of jail.

Take your pick:
--Sit in jail and refuse to protect a child
--Stay out of jail, and protect a child.

Judy Jones, SNAP USA
snapjudy at gmail dot com
"Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests"
SNAPAustralia dot org

Judy Jones | 25 July 2011  

Not to diminish the high crimes of the RCC but please examine the Jehovah's Witnesses who go door to door and come on our property.

Jehovah's Witnesses pedophiles.

Many court documents and news events prove that Jehovah's Witnesses require two witnesses when a child comes forward with allegations of molestation within the congregation. Such allegations have customarily been treated as sins instead of crimes and are only reported to authorities when it is required to do so by law, (which varies by state). It has also been shown that child molesters within the organization usually have not been identified to the congregation members or the public at large.
These people engage in a door to door ministry, possibly exposing children to pedophiles.

Although the Watchtower Bible Tract Society claims that known pedophiles are accompanied by a non-pedophile in such work, there is no law stating that such a practice must be followed.

The Watchtower corporation has paid out millions in settlement money already.

Danny Haszard | 25 July 2011  

It is a tragedy of the hugest proportion when our hierarchy did not stand up and act immediately against the sex abusers and stopped it right at the beginning. John Paul II and Benedict have much to answer for. Discipline is an act of charity when it is used sorrectly and many of the criticisms of the Church could have been avoided and the seal of Confession would not be an issue for secular governments to attack.

Trent | 25 July 2011  

Michael's analysis does not give sufficient emphasis to the one argument that is most persuasive and has lead to jurdications protecting the confessional, such as NSW in 1989 after the McGuigan case. Without the seal people will not confess anyway so society gains nothing. Even John Laws conceded this in an interview with me last Friday.

Readers maybe interested in an excellent study on this by Dr Keith Thompson, Religious Confessional Privilege and the Common Law, his recently published PhD thesis, and Bill Uren's op ed piece in SMH today.

Brian Lucas | 25 July 2011  

Three questions which might be relevant.
1. If a person confessed to crimes against children (or any law, in fact) would the priest simply absolve them without requiring some act of reconciliation (such as confessing to the police)?
2. How often does a child abuser feel guilty enough about their offences to go to confession? Most child sex abusers do not admit that their behaviour is wrong.
3. Has any priest in Australia ever gone to jail for refusing to break the seal of the confessional?

It seems to me that Senator Xenophon has set up a straw man.

Gwilym Henry-Edwards | 25 July 2011  

Where there is any conflict between freedom of religious expression and the culture of criminal cover up exposed by numerous inquiries over the years, there is no argument over who ought to come off second best. If a priest seeks to use the confessional as a means to cover up a crime then he is morally culpable as the perpetrator in my humble opinion. In cases of serious sexual abuse, this is even worse.

Kevin V Russell | 25 July 2011  

So what, Michael, was the point you were trying to make in this self-indulgent guilt avoiding article?

The truth of the matter is that, for a very long time, entire nations across the West have been hearing about the criminal activities, not to mention the totally immoral activities, of individual priests and bishops, and higher, in fact, the entire super structure of the Catholic church is a questionable superstructure.

These people are not 'messengrs of God' or servants of Jesus' at all.

They are carpetbaggers, shysters, conmen, crimminals, fifth colunists, Satan serving, dangerous and should be exposed for all of those.

Xenophon has it right. The nation-state makes the laws down here, and we are all required to follow them. The Roman Catholic church has no right to demand 'special treatment', and should not be protected by well meaning but quite wrong headed apologists.

The behaviour of the Vatican and its servants around the world should be treated with the same disdain as is North Korea within the international community.

Any and all favours delivered to the Roman Catholic church should be under review with the intention of removing them to bring that massive financial corporation into line with other moneymaking enterprises.

Roman Catholics need to start from scratch, along with all other churches, and demonstrate their value to society from first principles, what they 'say' they believe in.

This can only be demonstrated by action on the ground, our ground, here on Earth. To do that, they all need to be on the same wordly level as the rest of us, bound by secular laws and behaviour.

Sex predators and those who protect them, at all levels, go to jail.

I doubt that St. Peter would object, and I suspect he would approve of wrong doing, and wrong headedness, being treated equally down here on this planet.

Harry Wilson | 25 July 2011  

Radio National has just broadcast yet another 'apology' from the Roman Catholic church for its 'crimes against humanity' in relation to adoption practices in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

When will the Catholic church issue an apology for simply 'being here'?

Is this e-journal going to publish an article to gloss over this latest 'apology' as well as all the others?

Harold Wilson | 25 July 2011  

Would it not seem incumbent on the confessor to demand that a firm purpose of ammendment must involve admission of guilt and restitution being in the form of admission of guilt? Why is it that in the sacrament of Reconciliation we seem to no longer hear of the elements of restitution and reparation? In this area of sexual abuse of minors how can absolution be given with a clear conscience on the part of the confessor without a demand that action be taken by the offender for forgiveness to take place?

Kieran Fenn | 25 July 2011  

Whereas I personally full subscribe to the course of protecting children rights at all costs, I would like to accentuate that law must also be applied equitably.

To begin with, the catholic practice of confession is uberrima fide and that in the event that the seal of confession is broken, penitents will cease to honour it which renters Senator Xenophon arguments useless.

Secondly, in order for the law to apply equitably, (reference here is made to the Irish prime minister Enda Kenny's recent comments), citizens of other faiths may also be required to practice confessing unless otherwise the vice of child abuse is limited to persons of catholic faith only. Nevertheless, it is the assumption of the practice that penitents are repentant and thus make use of the sacrament to stay clean of thier sins. However, if this assumption collapses and a pattern emerge that ill intended persons do use the practice to continue commiting the crime; then evil has found its way into otherwise a noble sacrament. The assumption notwithstanding however,there is neither availble evidence to suggest that catholics are more likely to commit a child abuse crime than anyone else nor motivation to collapse the assumption.

Hillan Nzioka | 25 July 2011  

I wonder how often priests hear a confession to serious indictable crime other than from an already convicted criminal in prison. Almost never I would suspect (particularly from a paedophile fellow priest). Any criminal would avoid taking any risk whatever of being discovered in his crime. Another storm in a teacup to which public discussion lends more and more grist and brings further condemnation to Christianity and the Church.

Xenophon and his ilk (eg the Irish prime minister) should be ignored and they will simply go away, mimimising further unnecessary damage to the Church. And what if they do make laws to break the seal of confession; how are the authorities going to know who has confessed a crime and to whom? A lot of old codswollop with as much significance as the fairytale Emperor's New Clothes.We really do need to resist being led into defending every ill-informed opinion proffered for anti -church propaganda. Ignore these Quixotic warriors!!!

john frawley | 25 July 2011  

Clerics, e.g., Fr. Bill Uren, have been disputing making priests mandatory disclosurers. Perhaps Uren and the Chuch have forgotten something: all clerics were born humans and still are.

How can they commit a violation against humanity by holding the words spoken in the confessional so scared that they become an accomplice in the commission of a crime?

EXAMPLE: Bless me father for I have sinned since my last confession ... I have placed a bomb beneath the bishop's bed that will explode when he retires tonight ... I am sorry for these sins and the sins for my whole life.

Will the good father respect the confessional? If so, he is an accomplice to murder.

Confession of sex abuse of a child is a confession of a crime. When committed by a cleric it is murder of the child's soul.

The laws regarding mandatory reporting are for the protection and safety of one or more of God’s creatures. The creatures the Church wishes to convince us God loves and protects.

Clerics are bound by the universal oath: Do right by all humans, beginning with, first do no harm.

Steven Spaner, SNAP Australia Coordinator,
www dot snapaustralia dot org

Steven Spaner | 25 July 2011  

I wonder how many people will read (and understand) Bill Uren's article in SMH.
Confession/Penance/Reconciliation is very hard to explain to non-believers.
It might even be harder to explain to believers who have had unhelpful encounters with a confessor.

Bur for those suffering guilt, shame and remorse it can the best opportunity they will ever have of expressing their sorrow for what they have done and gaining the strength and resolve to overcome their character defects with God's help.

Uncle Pat | 25 July 2011  

How about some rational objective discussion. How would you explain to a non-religious person, without relying on canon law and religious tradition, why teachers or health workers who suspect they have seen evidence of abuse should be (as they are) required to report that suspicion, while Catholic priests who have heard what they believe to be evidence of abuse should not be required to report that evidence?

A simple question, all I want is a simple answer, not one that refers the efficacy or otherwise of mandatory reporting, or claims a special privilege or legal system for one group over another.

Ginger Meggs | 25 July 2011  

Freedom of religion? In this situation, freedom from 'religion', one earnestly hopes.

Helen Martin | 25 July 2011  

Let us be brutally honest here, at least amongst ourselves. The issue is not about priests protecting paedophiles.It's about priests protecting other priests. I am sad to say that I am yet to be convinced that a priest hearing the confession of a paedophile he knows to be a fellow priest will not treat him differently from a lay paedophile. I really want to be convinced. I certainly need to be convinced. The terrible burden we as lay Catholics bear is not that we suspect that all priests are paedophiles.It is that we are unable to believe that the vast majority who are not truly knew nothing about the tiny minority who are. To them I say:you did not lose our trust because of what we think you did.You lost it because of what we think you did not do.

margaret | 25 July 2011  

In my youth (a long time ago) our young priest explained that he would be obliged to with hold absolution in serious matters until the cofessor made restitution ie retruning monies taken, reporting to police ausalts, murder etc. Has the cannon law changed?

Richard Byrne | 25 July 2011  

The Church law should be changed so that it applies not to a priest who hears a confession, but to a priest who gives absolution to a person who confesses. The priest should be required to make absolution conditional on confession to the police in the case of a serious crime. If the person does not confess to the police (within a prescribed period) s/he has not complied with the condition and has not received valid absolution. The priest then, not having given valid absolution, is not bound by the seal of confession and must go to the police.

Gavan | 25 July 2011  

This is all very theoretical. Practically nobody goes to confession anymore, at least in this country, and child abusers believe that they are not doing anything wrong, so they're unlikely to be among the penitents anyway.

OldG | 25 July 2011  

Of all the comments so far to this article I think Stephen Spaner’s is the most pertinent.

The Catholic Church is comprised of human beings who have attributed to themselves an inappropriately placed divine authority the attitude of which has led to unprecedented psychological harm to the innocent mind of children.

In practice a good Confession must require reconciliation which means the penitent is required to turn his/her life around, it means actively changing the way one thinks about one’s sinful behavior.
A pedophile’s mind is disordered to the extent that he/she needs special help to change that behavior. Contrition alone is not enough!

Reconciliation involves two parties not one. The victim of church abuse does not get the opportunity to converse with the Church where abuse is concerned.

The Vatican authorities need to turn around their inappropriate use of Church authority.
All bishops who have a heart for compassion and empathy must call on the Vatican deities to open the ears of their hearts and change the way they think about their authority and the way they relate to the world.

Trish Martin | 25 July 2011  

For those who remember the days when a curtain separated the confessor and priest, I tell of a story my father has told over 50 years to me and others. During the war he boarded at the Marist brother school in New Norcia, Western Australia. Once a week, a mix of Indigenous and non Indigenous students would wait their turn in the pews to have their confession heard. With the privacy of just a curtain, a certain
Benedictine priest waited to prey on the boys. My father delivered his own revenge. Before his turn, he drank 2 litres of water and relieved himself on the sordid hands of this monster. He always felt that the Indigenous boys were the most vulnerable. So for our family the confessional is tainted. How could we see this space as sacred?

Yes I am hostile, however I have found points of agreement with some good people in the church. I absolutely agree with the courageous stand that Taoiseach Enda Kenny made in the Irish parliament. Speaking about the Cloyne report, he said, 'it excavated the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism” dominating the culture of the Vatican to this day.' From my experience, this is the story of the Australia Church hierarchy as well. This is their opportunity to follow the example of our Irish cousins.

I also agree that the Towards Healing document provides well considered guidelines for supporting people who have been abused by clerics. I am aware that the Perth office of Towards Healing is funded 0.6 at present with staff working as volunteers to try and attend to claims. Not a priority for the Perth Archbishop!!

joblow | 25 July 2011  

The joy of discovering, as an aging RC, that one can confess directly to God and that one does not need a middle-man. This revelation came after reading, in a Catholic book on the history of the sacraments, that the sacrament of penance is a later development in the life of the Church. It is, therefore, hardly essential.

Speaking with a priest recently re confession to a priest he lamented that most confessions are superficial and childish.

Francis | 25 July 2011  

When it comes to Cloyne I find it interesting that even the Irish Catholic newspaper is damning of the way the Church has handled things and in my own state the Catholic Record doesn’t even comment on what is significant at so many levels.

The address by the Catholic President of Ireland to the Parliament and comments by the Archbishop of Dublin on the Cloyne report should be bedtime reading for all Catholics especially those who grew up in Church dominated by Irish Catholicism. It shows that despite the best intentions of some there are those who still fail to understand the cancerous and destructive nature of clerical abuse. The betrayal, that is clerical abuse is total betrayal at every conceivable level of being.

It's clear from the report that the tragedy is of the Churches own making, one that is current as much as it is one of the past. The Irish Bishops in response to the sexual abuse crisis formulated a process not unlike Towards Healing and the Vatican called it a discussion document. The leaked Vatican letter to the bishops at the time makes interesting reading.

When the courageous Archbishop Martin talks of cabals in Ireland and in the Vatican he is speaking of “now” not something in the distant past. If you are looking to get a sense of the Irish coverage Clerical Whispers an Irish website that brings together much of the Irish and world comment. A look at its site visitor lie tracking makes interesting reading in itself The Vatican is frequently among its list of worldwide visitors.

Yes in Australia we have Towards Healing, not in Victoria though. It’s fractured thanks to undermining at inception by the then Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell. And I have to ask what real commitment is there at senior clerical level to the process when in my own state of Western Australia the staff who handle Towards Healing are reduced to one part paid position with the rest of the workload covered by staff, once paid, volunteering
Where is the Churches commitment?

When I ask that question I also know there are those who genuinely care who make a real difference. I just despair when l the people of the church at all levels including many good priests who are continually let down by the ongoing presence of clericalism, something Vatican continues to feed.

John Dallimore | 25 July 2011  

I'm not sure I agree with all the comments decrying 'confession'. I think the sacrament of reconciliation can be a wonderfully healing, life-affirming experience.

I'm also not sure I agree with Michael's argument.

Years ago I grappled with the notion that priests were not required by the church to adhere to mandatory reporting. This seemed to me to be a gross travesty of the sacrament and have no regard for the person most harmed by the criminal sin.

An old priest I love and respect assured me that he would only deliver absolution on condition of reparation, and in the instances of child abuse, that would be confession to police. I understood from him that that such an approach was supported by the Catholic church at large.

I agree with Trent, Gwylim, Kieran, Steven, Richard, Gavan and Trish.

To some of the other commenters: this place is not a venue for pogroms.

MBG | 25 July 2011  

Given that so few Catholics regularly "go" to confession these days, together with the point made by other comments, that if priests were compelled by law to reveal a confession by a child sex abuser such a person would not confess, make the whole exercise somewhat academic.

What, to me, is more important, is to somehow get across to the priestly profession how serious child abuse and other acts of physical, emotional and verbal violence to children, women and others, so that they take them really seriously. Also that they put the "victims" first before their own colleagues and their own unease when it is priests who are committing such abuse. We need more people who speak out against such violence, act with compassion to the "victims" and, above all, believe the latter when they speak out.

Having the courage to speak out is part of a long and painful healing process and the trauma undergone in any sort of violence, especially sexual abuse, should not be underestimated.

Dr Judith Woodward | 25 July 2011  

I’ll give you ‘Seal of Confession’ ! Set up a web site and invite people to tell their stories about how they told the priest something in confession and later the story was all over town. That ‘seal’ has been optional for a long time.

Isabel Sinton | 25 July 2011  

Gavan has got it right!

john frawley | 26 July 2011  

Another secretive ( viz S121) and unaccountable system which exposes children to abuse is Family Law.

Too often the parent who loses the child is not the one who is violent and abusive but the one who is trying to protect their child from the abuser.

The reason most protective parents don’t raise allegations of abuse is because they are told by ‘judicial officers’ that the court will consider them ‘unfriendly parents’.

If they do say something, they are told to either withdraw the allegations or lose their children. How can they do this if they want their children to be safe?

Children are the biggest losers in this adversarial system which – regardless of rhetoric about their interests being paramount - doesn’t put them first.

Ariel | 29 July 2011  

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