THE SANCTITY OF THE CONFESSION
The forthcoming inquiry into the Catholic church’s handling of the case of a NSW priest who admitted sexually abusing boys as young as 10 has proposed that priests could be ordered to reveal crimes told to them in private confessions.
However, priests are adamant that they will not comply with such a directive.
Priest and law professor Father Frank Brennan said the move would be a restriction on religious freedom.
“I am one of the priests who, if such a law were enacted, would disobey it and if need be I would go to jail,” he said.
Writing for the Hoopla, Jesuit priest, Fr. Michael Kelly explains why…
Thank God church authorities have commissioned an inquiry to be chaired by Antony Whitlam QC into the handling of “the Fr F case” by Catholic authorities in Armidale and Parramatta in the 1980s and the early 1990s.
However, it has nothing to do with the seal of secrecy priests commit to keeping about information divulged in Confession.
The Seal of Confession is a commitment made to every penitent by every priest under sanction of his being decommissioned if he breaks it. It is an even more forceful and binding law on priests than that which psychologists and other professionals make to protect client and patient data and the commitment which has had journalists go to jail rather than reveal their sources.
Why? Because, for believers, the matter is tied up with a relationship with God.
Christians really don’t get too excited when buildings and “holy places” get desecrated. Why? Because Christians prize relationships more than things like buildings. And the primary relationship that must not be violated by any other Christian – priest or not – is the relationship someone has with God.
A priest telling the details revealed in confession amounts to such a violation.
But there are manifold ways in which a priest is informed and can divulge the information received in other contexts. And that accounting is now a matter of law. Failure to account to appropriate authorities (the police for example) is a crime.
The Catholic Church was bedeviled in Australia and victims left out to dry until the mid 1990s by its manner of handling of sex-abuse allegations. The “secrecy of the Confessional” was extended way beyond any allowable limits set by a proper respect for the Seal.
What resulted were secretive and unjust ways of handling criminal acts.
In many parts of the world it remains so. Only last year did the Vatican insist that every national bishops’ conference develop a code of conduct and legal procedures for handling such matters. They were to be delivered by the end of last month. About half of the bishops’ conferences of the world met the deadline. Australia has had effective processes operating since the mid 1990s.
However, the international result is a subset of a more pervasive cultural issue in the Church which impairs transparency and harms the delivery of any effective accountability in many areas.
What is referred to as “clericalism” – the club mentality that hides from public scrutiny any information on its members and stands by the membership come what may – is as corrosive in religion as it is in any sector of society.
It amazed me that two of the more conservative bishops in Australia have commissioned Whitlam QC, an eminent jurist and former Justice of the Federal Court, to convene this inquiry. Perhaps the inquiry – into events that occurred before effective procedures and protocols were introduced in 1995 – and the appointment of an eminently well-qualified “outsider” to hold the Church to account is a sign of a new maturity in the Church’s leadership.
It may also provide another nail in the coffin for “clericalism”.
That can only be a good thing.
*Father Michael Kelly entered the Jesuits in 1971. After studies in philosophy, theology and social sciences, he worked as a journalist in Australia and Asia for various publications, religious and secular. He was ordained in 1984 and co-founded Albert Street Productions, a TV production company, in 1986. In 1989, he founded Jesuit Publications, publishers of Eureka Street, Australian Catholics and Madonna magazines. He is now the executive director of UCAnews.com – Asia’s Catholic news source.