Bishops in Australia Reject Plan to Make Priests Violate Seal of Confession

Theresa Smith | August 16, 2017 | 1:18pm EDT
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(Image: St. Joseph Baltimore


Roman Catholic bishops and priests of Australia rejected the Australian Royal Commission’s recommendation for lawmakers to legally force priests to report if they hear about sexual abuse in the confessional. If the recommendation is made into law, Catholic priests would be required to violate Church law.

The Catholic Sacrament of Confession is protected by the “seal of the confessional.” This means, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that “every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him.”

“He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents' lives,” states the Catechism.

Although the recommended law would legally require priests to break the seal, Father Brennan, a Jesuit priest and professor of law at the Australian Catholic University, said that he would have to refuse to obey the law.

‘‘And if there is a law that says that I have to disclose it, then yes, I will conscientiously refuse to comply with the law,’’ Father Brennan told The Australian.


‘‘All I can say is that in 32 years no one has ever come near me and confessed anything like that,” Father Brennan stated further. “And instituting such a law, I say, simply reduces, rather than increases, the prospect that anyone ever will come and confess that to me.’’

The Australian also reported that Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said, “Confession in the Catholic Church is “a spiritual encounter with God through the priest.”

“It is a fundamental part of the freedom of religion, and it is recognised in the Law of Australia and many other countries,” Archbishop Hart stated, “It must remain so here in Australia.”

“Outside of this all offences against children must be reported to the authorities, and we are absolutely committed to doing so,” he said.

The Australian Royal Commission, whose duty it is to inquire into matters of “substantial public importance” and to report to parliament, wrote in their recommendations,

“We recommend that the failure to report offence should apply in relation to information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession, and that there should be no excuse, protection nor privilege in relation to religious confessions for the failure to report offence.”

They said that they understood the importance of secrecy in religious confession, but also said that they have heard evidence of “perpetrators who confessed to sexually abusing children [and] went on to reoffend and seek forgiveness again.”

“In a civil society, it is fundamentally important that the right of a person to freely practise their religion in accordance with their beliefs is upheld,” the commission said later in the statement.

“However, that right is not absolute,” it continued.

“This is recognised in article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the freedom of religion, which provides that the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be the subject of such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others,” it stated.

“The right to practice one’s religious beliefs must accommodate civil society’s obligation to provide for the safety of all and, in particular, children’s safety from sexual abuse,” said the Royal Commission.

According to the Catholic Leader, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the archbishop of Brisbane, said the Church must speak to the Australian parliament because “it is they who will decide the law of the land.”

“All citizens are bound to respect the law, but it is ultimately conscience which stands in judgment upon the decisions of individuals who, if they choose to break the law, choose also to accept the consequences of that,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

“The challenge for the Church is to hold together two key values: first, the protection of the young and vulnerable, and second, the protection of the sacrosanct character of the sinner’s dialogue with God," said     

“In the Sacrament of Penance, the relationship between priest and penitent is unlike any other relationship, because the penitent speaks not to the priest but to God, with the priest only a mediator,” explained the Archbishop.

“That needs to be kept in mind when making legal decisions about the seal of the confessional. So too does the need to protect the young and vulnerable in every way possible,” he stated.

Paul Shanley, a defrocked priest who was convicted in 2005 of repeatedly raping a boy, and was

accused of sexually abusing many young males in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. (Screenshot.)


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