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The Plenary Council: Restoring the Third Rite

  • 05 October 2021
One of the casualties of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was the confidentiality of the Catholic Sacrament of Penance — commonly called ‘the Seal of Confession’. The Catholic bishops who responded to the Commission were unable to convince the commissioners that the seal of confession should continue to be respected, at least in some circumstances. As a result of the recommendations of the Royal Commission, now in a majority of Australian states and territories when a priest in administering the sacrament becomes aware that a child has been sexually abused, he must bring such an incident to the attention of the police.

This has placed the Catholic clergy in a difficult situation. On the one hand, they will incur automatic excommunication if they breach the inviolability of the seal of confession, even in cases of child sexual abuse. On the other hand, they will face judicial penalties and even imprisonment if they do not notify the police of any incidents of child sexual abuse, even if such incidents have only been revealed under the seal of confession.

To escape the horns of this dilemma, I have heard of some priests who have stated that they will no longer ‘hear confessions’ — administer the Sacrament of Penance. In other cases, some priests have stated that they will not grant absolution — an integral part of the Sacrament — to a penitent involved either as a perpetrator or a victim in child sexual abuse unless such a penitent agrees to repeat the information to the priest outside the confessional context. By this strategy the seal of confession will not be violated when the priest refers the incident to the police. But, of course, the penitent may refuse to cooperate with this strategy and the priest will then remain caught on the horns of the dilemma.

A further casualty of all these developments has been the Sacrament of Penance itself. As a result of the pandemic, like other religious observances, its availability has been drastically curtailed, and it is unlikely that recourse to the sacrament will be as frequent as previously even when the restrictions are lifted. Further, the confidence of the laity in the inviolability of the seal has, understandably, been undermined, a consequence of which may again be that recourse to the sacrament will be in decline. 

These are matters, I suggest, that should be addressed by the upcoming Plenary Council.