Here is a link to a Reuters story about the Catholic bishops of Australia rejecting the recommendation of an official inquiry and laws already passed in one state and one territory requiring Catholic priests to report information about child abuse revealed to them while administering the sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession.
The recommendation and the laws, of course, cannot be accepted, as they require a priest to break the seal of Confession, an act that is a sacrilege and that results in the penalty of automatic excommunication for the priest.
As I’ve said on this blog before, I believe these laws have little to do with protecting children. Why? Because they are not likely to lead to much revelation, and I think the civil authorities and legislatures know that. Call me cynical, but I don’t think many of those who abuse children can be counted among regular penitents. As well, anyone who is being abused or who knows of someone being abused can just as easily pass that information on to a priest outside the confessional, where the seal does not apply, and where laws mandating the reporting of child abuse would apply to a priest. As well, any priest can avoid the law by simply limiting his hearing of confessions to behind the confessional screen, making it either impossible to know who is passing on the information or at least providing plausible deniability, so anything the priest reports would be hearsay and not of much use to the authorities. Finally, priests are simply not going to obey the law. Yes, perhaps this will lead to a small handful of priests being subjected to criminal prosecution. What it will not lead to is information obtained in the confessional being passed on to the authorities, because priests are not going to break the seal of Confession.
So, what’s this really about? Well, law enforcement and prosecutors do not like the fact that there is a place that remains sacred, set apart, to which they are not allowed entry. Protecting children is simply the wedge being used to pry open the door to the confessional. I think, too, that it’s foolish to think it’s going to stop here. If information about child abuse learned in the confessional can be required of priests, why not information about murder and rape? Does anyone think legislators will be successful in convincing prosecutors that child abuse is serious enough of a crime to inspire these laws, but murder and rape are not? No. Prosecutors and law enforcement will petition the legislature to mandate that information learned in the confessional about these crimes must be reported, as well. Then, why not all crime?
The bishops of Australia ought to recommend to all priests that, until this mess can be worked out, all priests should limit hearing confessions to behind the screen, except in circumstances of immediate or likely danger of death. In any case, I think the Australian government is going to learn a great deal about the resilience of priests, and the Catholic people, as well.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.