PETER JOHNSTONE. The Seal of Confession: resorting to the Age of Christendom

Dec 13, 2017

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has recommended to Australian federal and State governments, that the Catholic ‘seal of confession’ should not exempt priests from a proposed offence of ‘failure to report’. The response of some Church commentators has been dismissive and disrespectful of the work of the Commission, foreshadowing defiance of civil law.

The Commission’s Criminal Justice Report in August 2017, proposed that people in institutions who ‘know, suspect or should have suspected’ that a child is being sexually abused and fail to act should face criminal charges. The Royal Commission, after thoroughly documented discernment, has decided that Catholic priests who know that a sexual predator is at large in the community should not be exempted from this requirement to report.

The Church is protesting that there should be an exemption from this provision to allow priest confessors to comply with its ‘seal of confession’, a church-made law. This protest comes from a church which has been shown, not only in Australia but throughout the world, to have failed to protect children from sexual abusers, indeed to have chosen to protect those abusers rather than vulnerable children. The arguments for exemption implicitly assert a moral superiority of canon law, instead of reviewing that canon law in light of the Commission’s substantial arguments. It would seem that my Church has learnt little from this criminal failure of pastoral responsibility that ruined the lives of so many children.

The Commission has proposed a new criminal offence for failure to report child sexual abuse. The offence would be committed if persons fail to report to police in circumstances where they know, suspect, or should have suspected that an adult associated with the institution was sexually abusing or had sexually abused a child. This ‘failure to report’ offence imposes a positive obligation to take action by making a report to police, with no excuse, protection, nor privilege in relation to religious confessions

The Commission did not make these recommendations lightly and set out its deliberations at great length, deliberations that seem to have been blithely ignored by Church commentators. Perpetrators of child sexual abuse are a grave danger to our children and the requirement to report was based on extensive evidence of past failures of institutional personnel to report, with the consequence of further abuse by predators remaining at large.

The Commission considered respectfully the seal of confession and the principle of freedom of religion, and accepted that in a civil society it is fundamentally important to uphold the right of a person to freely practise their religion in accordance with their beliefs. But that right is not absolute. No society can afford simply to allow religions to demand exemption from laws made for the good of society; religions should be subject to laws designed to protect and promote a good society.  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that religious freedom may be the subject of such limitations to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

The Commission heard evidence of a number of instances where disclosures of child sexual abuse were made in Confession, by both victims and perpetrators. The Commission found that Confession is a forum where Catholic children have disclosed their sexual abuse, and where clergy have disclosed their abusive behaviour in order to deal with their own guilt. The Commission heard evidence that perpetrators who confessed to sexually abusing children went on to reoffend and seek forgiveness again.

Let’s be clear. This is a matter of potential conflict between Church law and civil law. Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane and Deputy President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, observed recently that the ‘Age of Christendom’, where the Christian Church’s laws were considered pre-eminent, is over. Christianity will always and properly seek to influence society for the good and to promote the teachings of Jesus, but it would be wrong, in our pluralist multicultural society, for Christianity or any other religion to determine the nature of our laws. The response of some Church leaders on this matter seems to rely on a continuing reliance on the long-past age of Christendom.

If Church members defy civil law in order to comply with Church law, they must be prepared to face the penalties of civil law; in some cases that would be an heroic act and martyrs have been made of such acts. It would however be dubious heroism and a great shame for a good priest to go to gaol knowing that he was protecting a paedophile from a good civil law designed to protect children from the horror of sexual abuse.

We should not be concerned if paedophiles avoid confession for fear of being reported to civil authorities; a greater good is at stake. Already, most paedophiles apparently avoid confession in any event and one must wonder if those who do seek confession without fear of civil justice are simply looking for false comfort as they continue their predatory activity. However, if just one paedophile confesses his sexual abuse of children, the confessor priest would bear a heavy burden in failing to report that abuser knowing that more children were at risk while the paedophile remained at large due to his failure to report.

Canon 980 specifically allows for the refusal of absolution if the confessor has any “doubt about the disposition of the penitent”. Yet bishops of the Church have not even instructed their priests to refuse absolution to paedophiles until they have reported themselves to the police; that much is clearly permissible under canon law. It would seem that Church leaders see little need to respect the considered concerns of the Royal Commission. What have they learnt?

Canon law can be changed. It is not ‘Holy Writ’ as might be assumed from the defensive and aggrieved condemnations of the Commission by some Catholic commentators. Good leadership demands appropriate responses to new knowledge and changing circumstances. The evils of clerical child sexual abuse exposed by the Royal Commission require fundamental reforms of Church governance and culture, including canon law provisions especially the seal of confession.

The Royal Commission’s recommendation is necessary in the interests of the safety of our children; it is clearly proper that any person with knowledge of a predator at large should bring that person to the attention of the police. Those same considerations warrant a change to canon law to enable confessors to bring these predators to the attention of police in the interests of child safety. The inviolability of the seal of confession would continue to apply for other purposes.

The reports of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse provide an important opportunity, indeed an obligation for the faithful, most of whom have some direct family knowledge of child sexual abuse, to demand accountable governance of their Church. It is somewhat ironic that canon law, relied on to resist the Royal Commission’s demand that priests report paedophiles, also provides that “The Christian faithful have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful” (Canon 212 §3). It is time for bishops to listen to the people of their Church.

Peter Johnstone is a committed Catholic and a member of Catholics for Renewal. He gave public evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse as a member of the governance panel in the Catholic ‘wrap-up’ hearings in February 2017.


Catholics for Renewal

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: Criminal Justice Report inal_justice_report_-_executive_summary_and_parts_i_to_ii.pdf

‘Seal of confession should remain inviolate’ – Bill Uren

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