Since the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse wrapped up at the end of 2017 in Australia, there have been many calls from politicians, child protection groups and the media to force priests to break the confessional seal in cases of confessions by pedophiles and child abusers.
Some states have even gone so far as to propose legislation for such forced reporting. The latest comes from Western Australia, where the first steps have now been made by the state government towards mandatory reporting for priests. Proponents say this will help prevent child molesters from escaping justice.
However, there can be little doubt that many proponents see this as an opportunity to bring down the Church – effectively using the abhorrent sin of child abuse as a political tool.
Encouragingly, many priests have publicly stated they would rather go to prison than break the confessional seal.
Although laws designed to pierce the confessional seal are a trend among progressive legislatures throughout the world – in recent weeks California has tried to introduce a watered-down version – they won’t work.
Anyone who bothers to talk to a priest about these laws quickly learns they would rather go to prison than break the confessional seal.
This is not because they are interested in protecting child abusers from criminal prosecution, but because Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priests view confession as a sacrament, an act of worship between the penitent and God.
You might disagree – of course, many do – but priests devote their lives to the sacraments, including confession. And this is why they won’t violate it.
I applaud these good men for their courage in proclaiming their loyalty to their faith and their parishioners. Apart from anything else, deliberately repeating the content of a penitent’s confession is an excommunicable offence, but it’s still very encouraging to hear so many priests standing firm on this.
What has always gotten me, however, is the sheer naivety of these proposed laws.
Who would confess to abusing a child if the priest was legally obliged to report the person confessing? It makes no sense. Thankfully, this point was not lost on WAtoday, either:
(W)hy would someone confess child abuse to a priest who would then face criminal charges if he didn’t report it?
What kind of child abuser goes to confession, anyway?
And if they did, they can do so in a way that is anonymous. Even though confession isn’t what it looks like in the movies, you get the idea. The penitent is anonymous, behind a screen; the priest doesn’t know who they are.
The last point is another good one – the whole point of confession is that it’s anonymous.
For those unfamiliar with the Catholic Church, the priest generally sits in the walled-off confessional for hours at a time. He has no capacity to know whose confession he hears, unless he actually knows the person well enough to recognise his or her voice.
If anything, such a law would actually make things worse. As things currently stand, if a pedophile goes to confession, the priest has the opportunity to encourage the person to report their crime to the police. I could be wrong, but I believe priests may even be obliged to do this.
Forcing priests to spill the beans on their penitents would only dissuade such criminals from going to confession in the first place – thereby losing the opportunity to encourage them to turn themselves in.
Safeguarding the confessional seal doesn’t mean priests are protecting child abusers, either. It has more to do with the sanctity of the sacrament than the protection of the penitent:
A Perth priest who spoke to WAtoday on the condition of anonymity said the priesthood would happily comply with mandatory reporting laws for information about child abuse discovered outside the confessional.
He said the issue had been discussed at meetings of priests over the past year since it became apparent Labor would introduce the law.
“We’re unanimous that we would report if it was in a situation outside of the confessional that we learnt this information, but we would never report what happened within,” the priest said.
“A confession is a sacrament and I think people don’t understand that, that it’s not equivalent to counselling, or a professional relationship. This is a sacred relationship.
“During the prohibition era in the United States, the government created an exception for the sacramental use of wine in Catholic churches.
“We cannot interfere in the worship of a religion.”
The whole notion of forced reporting of confessions is so nonsensical it inclines one to think the push for these laws is coming not so much from a concern for the welfare of children, but from a desire to take down the Church.
Call me cynical but I truly believe there are those in the public square who hate Christianity and the Church, and want nothing so much as to see it fall.
My opposition to this is not an attempt to sugarcoat the ghastly reality of child sexual abuse within the Church. I would go so far as to say there is nothing in the world so evil as the betrayal of trust a priest commits when abusing an innocent in his care, especially as he is not just a spiritual authority, but a representative of Christ on earth.
Those who are guilty of such crimes will face their Judge one day and pay the price. But their evil deeds do not mean the sacraments and other institutions within the Church don’t deserve to be protected and safeguarded.
While the government denies the priest confession laws are a distraction from its record on child protection, some within the Catholic Church wonder whether the announcement is just the latest front in a bigger confrontation.
One priest told me he believed it was part of a continuing war on the Church in the wake of Australian and international child abuse scandals, which he said was in some ways understandable.
“A lot of secular people, or people who may have been in the Church as children but have left, are angry with the Church and this is a way of punishing the Church,” he said.
“We have to be willing to accept this anger and to deal with it in as Christian a way as we can while at the same time standing up for our rights.
“And we have a right to freedom of worship.”
Hear, hear! Let’s just hope these laws never see the light of day.
In fact, let’s pray for this very outcome.