In Australia there’s controversy over a new law compelling priests to report to police any confessions of child sexual abuse. The Catholic Church, of course, safeguards the sanctity of the confessional.
Having suffered abuse as a child myself, I’m deeply committed to protecting children from horrors, but I believe that violating religious freedom is not the solution.
In December of 2017, a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Abuse in Australia concluded an investigation of five years. A royal commission is “a body set up by a monarch at the request of a prime minister,” gathered to inquire into any sort of societal matter. During this particular one, the Commission heard 1,300 witness accounts and 8,000 personal accounts spanning 4,000 separate churches. The proceedings resulted in 2,500 allegations and hundreds of cases starting the process of prosecution.
Responding to the findings, Australia passed a law on June 7, going into effect March 31, 2019. It stipulates that any priest who fails to report confessions pertaining to pedophilia can be lawfully prosecuted. Archbishop Christopher Prowse of Canberra and Goulburn released a statement outlining the Catholic Church’s concern for the well-being of children. At the same time, Prowse does not support infringement on the Church’s right to practice its religion. “The government threatens religious freedom by appointing itself an expert on religious practices,” he said, “and by attempting to change the sacrament of Confession while delivering no improvement in the safety of children.” The reasons Prowse gave for continued loss of safety for children included that pedophiles lose the one outlet to confess their crimes for which they are penitent, most offenders hide their crimes anyway and the priests do not know the confessing penitent.
Prowse’s concern for protecting children is reflected in wider Catholicism. The Church of England published revised guidelines on clergy conduct in 2015. It stipulates that if a penitent confesses a crime, but refuses to approach the appropriate authorities, the priest should withhold absolution.
Catholic Professional Standards Ltd, a consultation firm based out of Australia, is also an example of change. The company is wrapping up a forum that is intended to “develop, audit and report on compliance with professional safeguarding standards across Catholic entities.”
It is tempting to be inclined towards infringing on religious liberty if it possibly helps prevent abuse. I thank God that after several years of suffering abuse from adults, someone reported my plight to authorities. Because of my past, my desire is to advocate unequivocally in the defense of children. If someone knows about a situation where a child is harmed in any way, I would urgently hope they seek intervention.
But legally violating the Catholic confessional is different for several reason. People coming to confession do so because they seek absolution for their sinful actions. This protected sacrament allows the priest to speak into lives, offering reconciliation with God, and directing penitents guilty of crimes to report themselves to law enforcement as central to their repentance. Under the soon-to-be enacted Australian law, abusers potentially would simply choose to stay silent about their crimes, which doesn’t help save violated children.
Another challenge is that the priests have next to no information about the individual confessing. Frank Brennan, a priest in the Canberra parish, outlines in an article how obscure the details of confession are. He recalls a man who came to him, claiming to have killed someone. He writes that “I did not know who the confessing person behind the screen was. I did not know the identity of the victim. I did not know when the offence was committed. I did not know in which jurisdiction it was committed. I had no right to know and no duty to inquire. I had no idea whether the person had in fact committed a murder or some lesser offence. Imagine going up the road and reporting these details at the Kings Cross police station.”
This conversation about breaking the seal of confession is complex. But the Catholic Church is unequivocal: “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason. A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.” The new Australian law attempts to compel Catholic priests to violate their church’s core doctrine.
As determined as I am, as an abuse survivor, to protect other victims, I am unable to endorse this Australian infringement in religious liberty. It opens a troubling door to other expansions of state power against religious freedom. And it arguably offers no tangible help to the abused.