Australia’s Trample on the Seal of Confession

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Written by Aidan McIntosh, Catholic University

The Legislative Assembly of Queensland in Australia passed a long-debated bill that requires priests to break the seal of confession in order to report the sexual abuse of children, whether reported or known, to authorities on Tuesday. 

Queensland Justice Minister Yvette D’Ath lauded the bill’s passing, saying that the new laws “…create a new offence of failing to report and failing to protect a child from institutional child sexual abuse”. She clarified the bill’s wide-reaching effects, pressing that “the new laws also clarify that priests will not be able to rely on the seal of confession to avoid the reporting of abuse”. Priests that fail to report suspected or known cases of child abuse may be punished in prison for up to 3 years. 

Controversy with the Catholic Church and the confessional seal’s role in law is not new. The conflict between secular leaders and the canon law of the Church is the main issue, and it has afflicted Australia as the country tries to find effective solutions to crises of sexual abuse among children among institutions. 

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, published in 2017, recommended in Recommendation 7.4 that those involved in religious ministry should not be exempt from mandatory reporting laws if they hear disclosed information in a religious confession. The response from Catholic bishops and ordinary priests in Australia has been less than welcoming of these proposals. 

In a statement released in 2018 by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the clergy reaffirmed the totality of the seal of confession: “Regarding the issue of the seal of confession, the Catholic Church does not view the sacramental seal as incompatible with maintaining child safety. The Church wants measures that will genuinely make environments safer for children. There has been no compelling evidence to suggest that legal abolition of the seal of confession will help in that regard”.

Last week, the A.C.B.C. communicated to the government of Australia that they would, in accordance with the Holy See, work diligently with civil authorities to implement policies preventing sexual abuse, but the bishops did not hesitate to stamp out the possibility of breaking the seal of confession. The letter talks about confessors encouraging the penitents to turn themselves in and seek psychiatric help while still keeping the disclosed information completely confidential; however, that seemed insufficient to Queensland’s legislators.

All clergy are ordained to Holy Orders as leaders and followers of Christ, blessed with courage from the Holy Spirit, and they are meant to be loyal to the teachings of Christ and the Church. This doesn’t mean that disobeying civil authorities, secular or religious, is justified in all cases, but this courage does allow clergy to disobey laws that are immoral in the sense that they mandate sin and ecclesial disloyalty among those ordained to be Christian leaders. As St. Paul and ten other apostles were executed by authorities for their steadfast preaching of the Gospel, many priests in history have voluntarily faced death, imprisonment, or another civil punishment for upholding the seal of confession. 

Canon 983 §1 mandates that the seal of confession is ‘inviolable’, forbidding the betrayal of penitents’ disclosure by their confessors. Can. 984 §1 completely prohibits confessors from using revealed information to the detriment of the penitents. 

Punishing priests for not reporting information disclosed in the confessional is one option for the confessors, the other being excommunication that only the Pope can lift. Mandatory reporting laws in religious ministry are usually good and effective at preventing future sexual abuse, but there is no legal basis to force clergy to violate canon law. 

Because of canon law, this law should be disobeyed by any cleric wishing to remain loyal to the Church. Because of other reasons, this law should be heavily scrutinized, and it has rightfully faced criticism. The main concern is if it will be effective at preventing sexual abuse cases in the future and allowing for previous cases to be reported. This policy could very well make pedophiles more secretive and less likely to seek help and reconciliation. 

A confessor can legally recommend that the penitent turn him or herself into the police and/or to seek psychological help, but there would likely be ethical issues with making this necessary for absolution. Ideally, pedophiles would turn themselves into local authorities, face punishment for their wicked crimes and seek reconciliation with God and themselves, looking towards a reform as a better person. A pedophile can admit with confidentiality to the priest in persona Christi that he/she has egregiously sinned, moving them away from their sins and towards the justice and mercy of God. 

A confessor’s role is to forgive sins and to move the penitent towards real amendment in their ways; what exactly does this law accomplish if not moving away from that intended role? If pedophiles cannot enter a confessional without fear, they cannot be truly contrite of heart and cannot effectively reform their lives towards the good. Confessors recommending that the penitent turn themselves into the authorities can help prevent future cases, after all. 

Australia’s mandatory reporting laws are not federal, but decentralized to the individual states. Queensland’s effort, in coordination with other states, to prevent additional sexual crimes through these laws is noble, of course, and having these laws apply to religious ministry is good, but a government who blatantly disregards the religious parallel to the attorney-client privilege with no signs of bringing about real change is one worth disobeying. 

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