News Analysis

The growing worldwide threat to confessional secrecy

Under threat: a priest hears a confession in California (CNS)

The Australian state of Victoria has passed a new mandatory reporting law, which does not respect the Seal of the Confessional. The bill had broad support among legislators, and passed the upper house comfortably. Premier Daniel Andrews remarked: “The most important thing is to send a message that the law is to be taken seriously. If people don’t obey the law, then the penalties are very significant.”

The role of mandatory reporter is not new to Victoria, which passed its first mandatory reporting legislation a quarter of a century ago. What is new is the law’s disregard for the protection of the priest-penitent relationship. The priest-penitent relationship has been sacrosanct in Anglo-Saxon legal tradition for centuries. Until very recently, it has been almost universally recognised in some form.

In Victoria, the priest-penitent immunity is on its way to being excised from the body of law that has been not only a bulwark against the encroachment of the state, but an essential and indispensable part of any legal system dedicated to the preservation of ordered liberty. It is not the first such law to pass in Australia: the Australian Capital Territory passed similar legislation earlier this year.

When the law was introduced in the parliament of Victoria, Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne – Victoria’s capital see – said in a radio interview that he would not comply with the law. “Personally,” he said, “I’ll keep the seal.”

Also ahead of the bill’s introduction in August, the archbishop said “Confession is a religious encounter of a deeply personal nature” and so “deserves confidentiality”.

He urged the government to focus on “stronger protection for children, not on infringing on religious liberty”.

Elsewhere, Archbishop Comensoli emphasised prudential considerations, including the extreme unlikelihood of any real-life situation in which a priest hearing a Confession would hear of reportable abuse.

Notwithstanding these objections, the law passed, and with support across the spectrum of political opinion: the sort of principled public opposition one might expect, given the nature of the encroachment now countenanced, was conspicuously absent. The new law may be indicative of a sea change, an alteration in the way a free people understands itself, the order of society, and the role of government in preserving that order.

In other jurisdictions bills similar in effect have been proposed: California’s attempt was withdrawn after a public outcry.

The legislative trend has caused consternation at the Vatican, which in July issued a strongly worded defence of the Seal of Confession.

Whether the attempts in other jurisdictions will prove successful, remains to be seen. It is certain that the protracted failure of Catholic leadership to face the crisis of sexual abuse and cover-up has already produced profound effects in the fabric of the civil order. This is only the beginning.