PAUL COLLINS. Breaking the Seal.

Recently we’ve seen a slew of articles in the media, both informed and otherwise, on the question of the seal of confession. Already a couple of Australian governments have acted to enforce mandatory reporting on priests when sexual abuse of children is mentioned in confession. Federal Attorney General Christian Porter told his state and territory counterparts in early-June that his government is working toward developing a consistent approach for all jurisdictions. In passing, Porter correctly pointed out that legally the seal of confession was never absolute under Australian law, but was generally respected. What is also clear is that the Australian bishops aren’t going to accept mandatory reporting of confessional material. We seem to be plunging into a church-state conflict with priests heading-off to jail.

Not that I don’t enjoy a good, old-fashioned church-state stoush. Just a couple of weeks ago I described Malcolm Turnbull’s intervention in the Archbishop Wilson resignation affair on PM as ‘a little bit like King Louis XIV telling the Vatican what to do.’ Who does he think he is? 

However, a fight over the seal of confession would be an entirely different and utterly fruitless exercise.

Late-last week the Australian bishops met in Melbourne and their president, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, told AM that the bishops don’t regard mandatory reporting ‘as a choice between child safety and the seal of confession,’ because ‘legislating against the seal of the sacrament would in fact not make children any safer.’ He described the legislation as coming from ‘a purely hypothetical world’ adding ‘It could be drafted only by those who haven’t the slightest idea of how the sacrament works on the ground.’ Clearly, the bishops aren’t going to budge because they know the Vatican isn’t going to budge.

Actually, Coleridge is right and mandatory reporting of confessional material is much ado about nothing. What it does is make the public feel that Catholicism is being pulled-into-line and put in its place. Governments respond to this kind of public pressure. 

If, like me, you’d tried to explain this stuff in some twenty-five live radio interviews over the last two months, then you’d realize just how ill-informed the public discussion around this issue actually is. But there is a way out of this impasse. And if the Australian bishops have any sense at all, they’ll adopt it. 

For Catholics individual confession to a priest isn’t the only way in which the sacrament of reconciliation can be celebrated. In fact, confession only became widespread in the eleventh century and the obligation of the priest to maintain absolute confidentiality only became general with the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

In the early church only murder, apostacy (denying the faith) and adultery were subject to the church’s penitential discipline which required public admission of guilt and public penance. That’s why many people—particularly powerful people—put-off baptism so they wouldn’t be subject to this draconian system. The ‘daily sins’ were seen as forgiven in the celebration of the Eucharist. There is still a penitential rite at the beginning of Mass.

By the sixth century the public system had collapsed and its wasn’t until the Middle Ages that confession to a priest emerged, although it wasn’t until the sixteenth century counter-reformation that confession as it is today emerged due largely to the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and the period following it. The confessional box—Graham Greene called it ‘the upturned coffin’—appeared at this time.

What we’re seeing now is the collapse of the old form of confession, just like the sixth century. This is where the opportunity lies for the Australian bishops. Because there already is another form of the sacrament of reconciliation, what is called the third rite with general absolution. This was widely practised in Australian parishes in the 1970s to the 1990s. It involved the parish community coming together in the weeks before Easter and Christmas with a generalized confession of failure and sin by the whole community in a worship service with a general absolution. There was no individual confession at all. 

It was very popular, not because it was ‘easy’ as reactionaries claimed, but because it symbolized the communal nature of human failure and it recognized that the actual celebration of the sacrament was the symbol of Christ’s forgiving presence, not the individual priest.

It was only abolished when a rump of bishops and a tiny group of ultra-reactionary laity persuaded Rome to come down heavily on the Australian church and stamp-out general absolution as a ‘pastoral deviation’ in late-1998. 

The result was disastrous. Nowadays hardly any Catholics go to confession. That is why Coleridge is right when he says governments ‘haven’t the slightest idea of how the sacrament works on the ground.’ It doesn’t.

There is a way out. The bishops need to re-introduce the third rite with general absolution while discouraging—even forbidding—the use of confession to an individual priest. If there is no one-on-one confession, then mandatory reporting becomes a non-issue.

The bishops don’t have to run to Rome to get permission to do this. The third rite is permitted in extraordinary situations, and God knows we’re in an ‘extraordinary’ situation in Australian Catholicism right now. This would remove children from exposure to vulnerable situations, it would stop paedophiles using confession as a way of salving their consciences, and get priests out of the firing line on mandatory reporting. 

All we need is leadership. Please bishops, we’re asking you, for once stand-up for the local church. Take the pastoral initiative and bring back a community celebration of God’s forgiveness. You’re dealing now with Pope Francis, a man who understands and encourages you to take the lead. We’re depending on you.

Paul Collins most recent book is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (New York: Public Affairs, 2018).


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Susan Edmondson

I thought the main problem with child abuse and the Catholic hierarchy was failure to pursue complaints and failure to report offences to authorities – that is, reports or suspicions in plain sight were not followed through according to the practice of protecting children. We have yet to see the bishops make a forthright, plain statement of commitment about how they will deal with these issues. Pastorally, one would have thought that a stance on reporting any reportable matter raised in a confessional or a private conversation would be similar to that in most helping professions and stated so. The… Read more »

Rosemary Lynch

The Roman Church’s love affair with the rules are little help here, Paul Collins. I was in Queensland during Third Rite, and found it extraordinarily liberating: but the thought of a compulsive perpetrator choosing this route to wipe the slate is not. Bill Uren, yes, the child does not offend, but the obligation to get the child to safety and support has not been addressed. Not even by Gary Everett. Rome does not understand Australian demographics, they demonstrated that when they banned Third Rite: canon law worship made the very Church an idol. Perhaps clear unequivocal explanation before conditional Third… Read more »

Barry Waters

The case for using the third rite is cogently explained in Paul Collins article. There is, as well, something misguided about the notion that the seal of confession should be declared by law to provide no defence to the priest who refuses to disclose things confessed. If the law attempted to deny the seal, how could that law be administered. It would be a law that couldn’t be policed, short of placing CCTV cameras in every confessional. What point is there in having a law that cannot be placed before a court without evidence being available. How could we ever… Read more »

Garry Everett

Paul, you are correct in saying that abolishing one to one confession to a priest, will obviate the need for mandatory reporting. On the other hand it will do nothing to increase child protection from paedophiles. We are at impasse and the Bishops have shown their usual distaste for breaking new ground. In a very good article in The Tablet (23 July), Thomas O’Loughlin, president of the Great Britain Theological Society and a lecturer in historical theology, made the following statement about another of the Church’s sacraments, eucharist or communion. He said:” ….reality is richer and more complex than legally… Read more »

Michael Gill

Paul, what is the position if a person in the circumstance of a confession, tells priest of an intention to commit a serious crime including assault of a child?

Rosemary O'Grady

Citizens’ Arrest?

Peter Johnstone

Paul, you have provided here some very helpful advice to the bishops on a way out of their self-inflicted impasse, advice which you would probably agree is unlikely to be followed. That advice however avoids the moral issue as to whether the seal should bind a priest in such a situation – this is not “much ado about nothing.” The Royal Commission report established the facts on which the recommendation is based. I added recently to the “slew of articles” on this matter in Eureka St, and on this site, in which I commented: “Most Australians would hope that any… Read more »

Kieran Tapsell

There is another solution if the Church wants to retain private confession. The Royal Commission’s recommendation follows from its finding that some priest abusers (I stress some) used confession as a means of assuaging their guilt through absolution. If canon law required the refusal of absolution until such time as the abuser confessed to the police, then there is unlikely to be any such confessions from which the problem of reporting might arise. Canon 982 already provides that a penitent who confesses to wrongfully accusing a priest of soliciting sex in the confessional is to have absolution refused until such… Read more »

Bill Uren SJ

But, Paul, if the subject of the Seal of Confession is only the sins of the penitent and any other circumstance that is so intimately connected to the sin that revealing the circumstance might reveal the sin of the penitent, then the Seal does not cover the “sin” of the child who “confesses” that they have been sexually abused. The child has not committed a sin; he/she is the victim, not the sinner; it is the perpetrator who has sinned. So, this information of abuse that the priest receives from the child is not a sin and does not fall… Read more »

Kevin Peoples

The third rite of the Sacrament of Reconciliation should certainly be reintroduced as the norm for it’s clear that the Catholic laity have rejected individual Reconciliation. But it’s not at all certain that the same applied to religious — secular and order. We do know that abusing clerics in Ireland and the United States, in the period 1950-1980, used the Sacrament regularly. Ignoring the necessity to sin no more, these men somehow salved their conscience yet continued to abuse children. The third rite is made for such clerics. Abusing clergy can hide themselves in the general community and seek forgiveness… Read more »