Violating the seal of the confessional will not help abuse victims

A woman goes to Confession in St Peter's Basilica (CNS)

The Royal Commission dealing with child abuse matters in Australia recommends that the seal of confession should be disregarded. As the Guardian reports:

Clergy who refuse to report child sexual abuse because the information was received during a religious confession could face charges if recommendations for new institutional criminal offences are accepted.

The child abuse royal commission wants failure to report child sex abuse in institutions to be a criminal offence, extending to information given in religious confessions.

The reasoning is as follows:

We heard evidence of a number of instances where disclosures of child sexual abuse were made in religious confession, by both victims and perpetrators,” the report said. “We are satisfied 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 above is, I am sure, factually true. Children do mention that they have been abused in confession; and abusers do confess this sin. But should a priest who hears such matters under the seal of confession be obliged to report it, and should failure to do so be a criminal offence?

If the clergy were obliged to report what they are told in confession to the police, without the consent of the penitent, then one thing is for sure: no one would ever want to confess that particular sin again. The rules around confession exist for one very good reason: to make things easier for the penitent. You can go to confession knowing that everything you say will never be told to another living soul. Once that absolute guarantee is gone, the penitent would have no real guarantee of confidentiality, and would, naturally, be more diffident about confessing his or her sins.

But what should a priest do if someone, either victim or perpetrator, mentions matters of abuse in the confessional? All priests would urge perpetrators to give themselves up to the police, and to seek professional help. All priests would urge victims to talk to someone outside the confessional, and seek help from someone in authority. But if they refuse to do so – and one may not realise why they choose to do so – then the priest has to respect that decision. One thing to remember is that someone may be using the confessional to “road test” talking to someone else outside the confessional, to gauge a reaction. They may refuse to talk to someone in authority or someone from a helping agency, but may do so in the future. It takes time to pluck up the courage to do this. The attempt to force priests to bring in the police may well do a great deal of harm, and cause the person to clam up completely: this goes for both victims and perpetrators.

The seal of confession has long been a bugbear for many. Totalitarian governments loathe it, as it is a completely private space where the state cannot enter. It was not unknown for communist governments to bug confessionals. The Australian government is far from totalitarian, but it too needs to respect this private space in which people can talk and know that the talk will not have consequences. And as for the confessional, so too for other private spaces; the human right to privacy, and the idea of confidential relationships should not be seen as enabling the covering-up of abuse. Far from it. It is only in these respected spaces we can uncover the truth about ourselves, and that is vital. It is also vital for the health of society that internal and external fora are kept separate. Abuse, after all, especially sexual abuse, arises when privacy is not respected.

One understands what the Australian Royal Commission wishes to do – but violating the seal of confession is not the way to do it. Incidentally, the protection of the seal of confession is one thing on which all the priests I know are willing to go to jail. But let us hope that it does not come to that. Incidentally (though this is perhaps a matter for a separate article) how on earth would the courts prove that a priest had not reported something that he had heard through confession? You would only have the penitent’s word for it, for the priest would never speak about it, nor would he even confirm or deny that person had ever approached him in the confessional.