GEORGE BROWNING. Confession and Child Abuse

 The Royal Commission has made what most Australians believe to be a very reasonable and overdue request – that priests should be obligated to report evidence of child abuse no matter what the circumstance. Resistance from the Church will not be received sympathetically.

Last week the Royal Commission requested a federal law be passed mandating priests who hear a confession relating to child abuse to pass the information on to appropriate authorities.  While Francis Sullivan, CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council signalled sympathy even support for this request, the Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, says such a requirement would be an infringement of ‘freedom of religion’; and Fr Frank Brennan, has said if this became law he would simply disobey or cease hearing confessions.

The general population and perhaps even a significant proportion of the catholic community will find this response hard to understand or accept given the gravity of the situation in which the Church finds itself.

Neither the Archbishop nor Father Brennan have given a considered defence of their position, probably because an argument based in theology or canon law would not be easy reading in the secular press!

Let me have a shot at it. I assume both Archbishop Hart and Father Brennan are coming from a traditional catholic position that the sacerdotal ministries of the Church are not incidental but necessary and effective conduits of grace to eternal salvation.  That is to say, to deny the seal of the confessional to a person in mortal danger who wishes to confess the crime of child abuse is to potentially deny that person their opportunity of salvation.  The Roman Catholic position is that authority to forgive sins, given by Christ to his Church, is facilitated through a sacerdotal priesthood.

Five hundred years ago this October Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, heralding the European Reformation.  Luther considered many practices of the Roman Church to be abuses, notably the practice of indulgencies as effective instruments of salvation. Significantly he upheld the importance of confession and it is believed went regularly to confession himself until his death.

However, he considered confession to be a ‘pastoral’ sacrament (along with marriage, unction etc) and not of the same standing as the dominical sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist or Mass).  In large measure the Anglican Church, which has retained catholic practice, has adopted Luther’s position.

As a pastoral sacrament, confession, including its seal of confidentiality should be honoured and protected.

Traditionally the sacrament of confession and the absolution that flows from it comprises three parts.

  • Contrition – genuine sorrow or penitence of heart
  • Confession – the declaring of the fault
  • Sanctification – the performance of certain acts, usually of a pious nature.

Luther was critical of the place of sanctification, not in the general sense, but in the specific sense of being a necessary means through which absolution could be achieved. He of course argued that forgiveness is an unwarranted gift of grace, not placated or warranted through any act of ours other than the contrition itself.

Religious confession (like the oath taken on the bible in a court) assumes the one taking the oath or the one confessing ‘fears’ the judgement that flows from their action, and recognises accountability to God.

No human being alive is immune from the need for ‘amendment of life’.  Being able to confess a mistake or misstep to another is one sure path of preventing such an error becoming a pattern, a habit, or a way of life. For those with faith in God, to confessing to one appropriately authorised (priest) is a gift of grace.

There are times in most lives when regret or remorse becomes a burden. Often the reason for remorse was not an intended action but an unintended consequence.  The relief of this burden is an absolute necessity for a healthy life to be able to embrace the present. For those with religious faith, again the sacrament of confession is a channel of grace.

The capacity to talk in the strictest confidence to another is essential if a person is to be enabled to negotiate troubled pathways and to reveal what needs to be revealed for health wholeness and forgiveness.  The seal of the confessional is essential.

All of these and many others are pastoral needs met through confession.

However, a person confessing a crime, especially a crime of the gravity of child abuse, should not expect the assurance of absolution unless the consequences of that action are faced. The facing inevitably means facing consequences in law.   Christian practice has always recognised the legitimacy and obligation of civil law.  If hurt has been done to another, then the consequences of that violation have to be met. It is one matter for a person to seek and receive forgiveness, it is quite another for the consequences to be properly addressed.  Even today it appears there are many, some in Church leadership, who have not properly understood the lifelong damage done through abuse of children.

Biblical teaching as well as state law recognises that violation or hurt of a child is most grievous.

It is nonsense for Archbishop Hart of Melbourne to argue the reporting of child abuse revealed in the sacrament of confession would be a violation of ‘freedom of religion’. For the one making the confession to genuinely be restored, meeting the consequences of their action according to law is a necessity. It would of course be wrong for a person to be ‘entrapped’.  It needs to be made clear that evidence of this crime has to be reported. It would also be wrong for the person with courage to come to confession to be abandoned. The priest or another acceptable person should accompany the penitent on the long and tortuous journey ahead, giving outward and tangible evidence of divine grace and redemption which never ceases to be on offer.

‘Freedom of Religion’ will be seen as having no place within Australian society if it appears,  to protect an abuser from the consequences of their criminal behaviour. Nor will it be seen as a right worth protecting if it gives clergy an immunity not enjoyed by teachers or people of other professions who must report even if that information is uncertain.

Freedom of religion should not and cannot protect any from the application of civil law unless that law is clearly immoral.

It is my hope and prayer that the request of the Commission becomes law and that Father Brenan will hear confessions for a very long time to come: without doubt his ministry is and will be a blessing to the many who are fortunate enough to benefit from his profound wisdom and counsel.

Bishop Browning is the retired Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn









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5 Responses to GEORGE BROWNING. Confession and Child Abuse

  1. Peter Mansour-Nahra says:

    Thanks Mike Gilligan for noting Brennan’s article.The passionate enthusiasm of commenters on Fr.Brennan to see mandatory reporting is understandable, but all of them do not address one of the most important aspects of the debate, viz enforceability of a law. Unless the confessing pedophile tells the authorities, no one will ever know the priest has heard the confession. If the penitent goes to the police because the priest has made absolution and forgiveness dependant on that action, the best outcome is achieved. If not, the priest’s reporting would have little evidentiary value – just “he said – he said” even if he does know the name and whereabouts of the pedophile, which is unlikely. Arguments that respect for the seal of confession puts Canon Law above the law of the land is incorrect. Australian law recognises conscientious objection in healthcare, in the ADF and other areas. The responsibility of the priest is to do all he morally can to protect children, but he cannot break the seal of confession morally. As a former priest who heard confessions for 10 years, I would take the consequences of my stand not to reveal what was heard in confession.

  2. derrida derider says:

    Yes, I am neither Catholic nor a canon lawyer, but I always understood that in the case of confession of a major crime committed against another, then absolution is conditional on the person doing a second confession – to the civil authorities.

    If my understanding is wrong, or if (as appears to be the case for child abuse by priests) actual practice was very different, then the case for mandatory reporting becomes overwhelming.

    And if Father Brennan stops hearing confession, how does he deal with the consequences of his parishioners going unshrived? That’s not a position from which he can reclaim any of the moral high ground his predecessors and colleagues have thrown away.

  3. Jim Kable says:

    Excellent understanding and argument. It is essentially clear that Denis Hart and Frank Brennan are arguing that their position puts them above the law of the land and as protectors of those who abuse children. I feel as deep a disgust at this specious nonsense as I do at all those in religious cloaks who abuse children.

  4. Bruce Cameron says:

    Dear Bishop George,

    I found your post to be a breath of fresh air and I hope that, with similar thoughtful input from all stakeholders, the vessel which has been launched will come home in clean air (not to miss the opportunity to mix a metaphor).

    However, “…a person confessing a crime, especially a crime of the gravity of child abuse, should not expect the assurance of absolution unless the consequences of that action are faced”.

    I don’t think you necessarily meant to, but you’ve raised the question of acceptability of a two tier situation, ie. someone confesses to a crime, but it is not considered sufficiently ‘bad’ for there to be an obligation of reporting it to appropriate authorities.

    I imagine that the act of confession already brings with it a judgement on this basis, ie. so as to decide on the nature of the sanctification. But how do you make a divide between what warrants ‘reporting’ and what doesn’t? Surely this can’t be left to individual ministers of faith, no matter how wise.

    It would be easy to state that all offences under criminal law are to be reported, but is it this straightforward?

  5. Mike Gilligan says:

    I’m sorry this piece is uninformed. Brennan has published a well reasoned case for his position which it appears the author has not read.

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