20 November 2019, The Tablet

No gain in lifting seal of confession


It might seem reasonable to demand that any person who has any role in the care of children should have an obligation to report whatever suspicions he or she may have, that a child is being sexually abused. This was the view taken by the Australian Royal Commission when it reported in 2017. It declined to exempt members of religious institutions from this legal requirement, which applied to certain identified groups, such as teachers and doctors, but not to the general public. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in England and Wales has heard similar demands, and is still considering its response.

The Catholic Church in Australia promptly objected to what it took to be a deliberate attempt to break the Seal of the Confessional, which binds a priest, under pain of excommunication, never to disclose – under any circumstances – anything he hears in Confession. The Commission had concluded that the Seal of the Confessional was preventing the discovery of abuse. Church spokesmen denied this, and claimed that if the automatic reporting of abuse was legally enforced, no abuser would ever confess it, so nothing would be achieved. In any event, any abuser who did confess his abuse of a child to a priest would be told he had to turn himself in to the authorities, and would not receive absolution unless he did so.

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