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Defending the seal

19 November, 2012 0 Comments

A few imprisonments might once again turn the Catholic clergy into role models.

By Lyle Dunne

In the context of the proposed Royal Commission into the sexual abuse of children, there has been talk from politicians on all sides of politics about the possibility of attempting to “break the seal of the confessional”, in relation to the sexual abuse of children.

I have to wonder if they’ve thought it through.

For a start, one wonders why this would be proposed in relation to this crime, when no-one has suggested it in the case, for example, of a serial killer who confesses to a priest, and reveals in the confessional his intent to continue killing.

A priest would presumably refuse absolution in such a case – but the point is that there would be a much stronger public interest in this information than in the case of a confession about child abuse at some point in the past.

Yet I’ve never heard anyone, Catholic or not, suggest that in such a case, the priest should violate the seal of the confessional.

The murderer

Perhaps, in the case of murderers, people have thought about the implications. The existence of a sacrosanct confessional means that there is a greater (albeit still slim) chance that a murderer will go to confession. This presumably reflects penitence, and a desire to stop, which the priest could help with. There is some possibility that the priest might persuade the murderer to give himself up, or at least to stop, even if one does not believe in any supernatural assistance.

So why is child sex abuse so different?

Well for one thing it’s a very much the issue du jour. Perhaps this is because the sexual abuse of children has become, in the popular imagination, virtually the only remaining sexual sin, and all the indignation previous generations had at adultery, promiscuity, and homosexuality is now focussed on this offence.

But there’s no denying that there’s an element of anti-Catholicism behind the campaign against child abuse. (That is not to argue that the problem of abuse of children is not real, and an enormous scandal and cause of shame for Catholics.)

I suspect there’s a Da Vinci Code-style vision of a conspiracy of clergy covering for each other, laughing up the sleeves of their cassocks, and absolving each other like the curés in Clochemerle, who use to take it in turns to cycle to each others villages and hear each other’s confessions of dalliance with their mistresses. Indeed, there have been conspiracies among abusive priests. But of course in real life, forgiveness requires repentance, genuine repentance requires a commitment not to repeat the offence – and even if you can fool the priest into uttering the words of absolution, you can’t fool God.

” … the sexual abuse of children has become, in the popular imagination, virtually the only remaining sexual sin, and all the indignation previous generations had at adultery, promiscuity, and homosexuality is now focused on this offence.”

(There is another image about the confessional popular in the cinema: the penitent who makes a confession to a priest who has witnessed or otherwise become aware of a crime, to prevent his reporting it. But the consensus view seems to be that the seal does not apply to information obtained otherwise, and merely corroborated in the confessional. Further, without going as far as the position recently enunciated by an Anglican Bishop – that a penitent who refused to turn himself in would not be absolved, and without absolution the seal would not apply – there does seem to be room for the view that a clearly cynical attempt to silence a witness would not be a confession in any real sense, and not be subject to the seal. It would be in the same category as the purported marriage of Pinkie in Brighton Rock, cynically contracted to prevent Rose from testifying against him.)

Nevertheless, politicians who are themselves Catholics are anxious to avoid being seen as a part of a dark conspiracy, and have made statements that appear to either suggest that the general obligation to report sexual abuse applies equally to priests, or to call explicitly for the breaking of the seal of the confessional.

And it must be said that the confidentiality of the relationship between priest and penitent, like that between journalist and source (and unlike that between lawyer and client) now depends primarily on the determination of those concerned, rather than the somewhat equivocal protection offered by the law.

And here’s the rub. “Breaking the seal” may sound fine and dramatic in the abstract, but how would it work in practice? How likely would it be to yield information leading to a conviction?

For a start, the priest would have to have gone to confession and confessed the crime. In the case of a cynical serial offender, how likely is that? He would know that there could be no possibility of forgiveness without genuine contrition, and the real desire to stop.


Unlike most penitents, he would have to have gone to a priest he knows, and who knows him. And that priest would have to recognise him – particularly difficult in the case of a traditional confessional. (Of course, this is precisely why traditional confessionals were designed thus: to give the penitent the confidence that goes with anonymity.)

Further, the authorities would have to be able to identify the priest hearing the confession. It beggars the imagination to suppose that a serial sex offender would have a regular confessor to whom he’d trot along once a month and confess to sex abuse – only to be told, each time, that he couldn’t be absolved without repentance.

So if it’s not his regular confessor – are we to suppose that the police would follow a suspect in the hope he might duck in for a quick confession, then leap in and seize the priest in his stole immediately afterward?

Yet none of these practical objections, telling as they are, constitutes the main problem.

It’s simply this: priest won’t talk.

The priests who have submitted to torture and death down the centuries rather than reveal the contents of confession, though revered as martyrs for the Faith, have not generally been figures of exceptional heroism.

It was just understood from the outset, and I believe still is, that as a priest, you couldn’t reveal the content of a confession, at peril of your immortal soul.

How likely would it be that a priest would choose hell in preference to, say, a term of imprisonment in one of NSW’s admittedly less-than-convivial penal institutions?

Frankly, I almost hope such a prosecution happens. I think it could only happen once, and it would do much to restore faith in the priesthood, presently at its nadir.

Catholic clergy might again become role models.

The main disadvantage would be that the already-slim chance that a serial sex abuser might go to confession, thus sharing his dark secret with a sincere individual who might persuade and assist him to reform – to say nothing of the supernatural graces which might come to his aid – would be reduced to almost nothing if such a case were to become public, even if the priest did not in fact reveal anything.

That preserving the seal of the confessional from legal assault serves the common good should be obvious to anyone who gives the matter any serious thought, even a dedicated anti-clericalist. (Certainly it was the view of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism, and no friend of the Church.)

So the most likely outcome, and the lesser evil, in my view, is that this will in come to be seen to be a bit of sabre-rattling against the Church: there will be no serious proposal to change the law; but in any case, whatever the law may say, we will never see before an Australian court a case of a priest charged with refusing to reveal the content of a confession.

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