Flat White

It’s time to end the seal of the confessional: the religious case

10 April 2019

12:14 PM

10 April 2019

12:14 PM

There have been recent calls in California and Australian jurisdictions for the mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse by clergy even if it means lifting the seal of the confessional. The Canberra Times, for instance, reports that the ALP, Greens, and Liberals support legislation so that: “Priests in Canberra will soon be forced to break the seal of confession to report child abusers, despite fears the new laws impinge on religious freedoms.” In an editorial, the Canberra Times posed the issue rather starkly:

How much will it take for the Catholic Church to accept, openly, that it is, and always will be, subject to the laws of Australia? … It must acknowledge its role in so much misery by renouncing all aspects of its practice that has contributed in any way. It could start at the centre by pulling back the curtain [of the confessional] and doing its moral duty.

Strong words indeed!

It is after much reflection that I wish to declare my support for the mandatory reporting of child sex abuse even if it requires Catholic clergy to break the seal of the confessional.

Just to be clear, I’m no secular fanatic. I’m an Anglican priest, an academic, and advocate for religious freedom. I have been busy rebutting the efforts of social progressives to demonize religious adherents and to extend government regulation of religious schools and charities. I’ve proposed balancing religious freedom and LGBTI rights. I’ve argued for the right of religious institutions to appoint people who hold to their own faith tradition. I’ve cautioned against limiting religious freedom because of how it affects cognate freedoms. I’ve explained to American audiences the state of the conflict over religion that has surfaced in Australia. I made a submission to Australia’s Religious Freedom Review setting out my own vision of how religious freedom should operate in a pluralistic and secular democracy. My concern for religious freedom in Australia and around the world is real and my credentials in advocating for this topic are I believe bona fide.

In addition, I am very aware of the anti-Catholic sentiment that is festering in some western countries. In Australia, this was manifested in the attempt to haul a Tasmanian Catholic archbishop before a human rights tribunal for conspiring – with heinousness and malice of forethought – to teach catholic beliefs about marriage … to Catholics. Even the bolshie and highly secular Guardian has noticed more than once (see here and here) the upsurge in Catholic-hating of late in the UK. There was a great article by African-American church leader Eugene F. Rivers III about the bigoted attacks by US senators Pamela Harris and Diane Feinstein against Catholic nominees to government positions. I count Catholics as friends in faith, not adversaries to be hounded out of the public square. No, I don’t prance around in a bowler hat and orange sash beating a drum like some protestant fanatic.

However, even an advocate for religious freedom like myself understands and accepts the arguments for requiring Catholic clergy to break the seal of confession and to provide mandatory reporting of child sex abuse. Religious freedom is an intrinsic human right, a key index for gauging freedom in any state, but it is not absolute and can be limited in instances of public safety.

I know this goes against the consciences of my Catholic friends for whom the sanctity of the seal of the confessional is tremendously important. My social media feeds have been filled with Catholic friends declaring that the proposed legislation is tantamount to war on the Catholic Church. Many have said they are willing to go to prison or even die to protect the seal of the confessional.

Even so, there are several cogent arguments – religious, ethical, and legal – why the seal can be broken in the instance of reporting child sexual abuse, whether by clergy or by anyone else.

First, there is a scriptural argument, something those who treasure the sacred text of the church should reflect upon.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus taught that, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6, NRSV). Recently Lorne Zelyck (“Matthew 18,1-14 and the Exposure and Sexual Abuse of Children in the Roman World,” Biblica 98.1 [2017]: 37-54) has argued that this text is not about burdening neophyte Christians with sectarian agendas, but treating children in an offensive manner, scandalizing them, corrupting them, or violating them. Christian leaders are commanded to provide hospitality for children, rescue infants from exposure, and save children from abuse. Those who exploit children are threatened with a terrible judgment. Zelyck concludes: “Jesus is concerned about the welfare of children (paidion), and he presents eschatological warnings of divine retribution against anyone who scandalizes ‘one of these little ones.’”

Among the writings of St. Paul, there is a particular set of instructions given to the Thessalonian church about avoiding the sexual immorality and exploitation that characterized Greco-Roman culture: “You know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honour, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:2-7, NRSV). Lest we think Paul was a puritanical prude, one might want to consider the words of Horace who suggested that no sexual desire should ever go unfulfilled, “‘If your groin is swelling, and a housemaid or a slave boy is at hand, arousing constant desire, do you prefer to burst with tension? Not me: I enjoy love that is available and easy” (Horace, Sermons 1.2.116–19). Paul was instructing the Thessalonians not to imitate the pyramid of power and the culture of exploitation that characterized sex in Romanized Thessaloniki. Instead, followers of Jesus were to be different and distinct even by the way that they enjoyed sexual relations – no exploitation or abuse among them was to be tolerated.

Thus, within the New Testament, there is dominical tradition and apostolic precedent for prioritizing the safety of congregational members from sexual abuse and exploitation.

Second, there is an ethical argument that protecting children from sexual abuse is the greater good to be pursued. Most ethical dilemmas are usually on account of two valid ethical imperatives coming into conflict. For instance, one should not lie, but lying to the Gestapo to save a Jewish family hiding in your basement is the greater good. Similarly, protecting the penitent in confession is good. If a woman confesses to a priest her adultery and seeks absolution, then the priest shouldn’t blab to her husband or gossip to her friends since it would cause her harm and make her the subject of punishment after she has already shown contrition. So, protection of the penitent is a genuine good … but a greater good still is protecting children from harmful and repeated abuse. This is particularly persuasive if we consider that the degree of harm done to the victims by a penitent abuser is greater than the harm that would be done to the penitent abuser if he or she were reported to authorities. What is more, reporting a penitent abuser might actually be a form of protection for the abuser, protecting them from committing further crimes (dehumanizing themselves further), protecting them from suicide (which is common among sexual abusers), and from vigilante justice (also, not unheard of). The greater good of protecting vulnerable children exceeds the good of protecting the penitent from judicial punishment in this particular instance. It can also be regarded as being in the interest of the penitent to be prevented from committing further sexual abuse and beginning the journey towards psychological and pastoral treatment.

Third, Catholic faith requires both organic development of its doctrine and resourcement of its ancient tradition to effectively address the problem of abusive priests. The origins of penance and the seal of the confession are developments from the medieval and counter-reformation periods. Just as the seal of the confessional was a necessary development to ensure the confidentiality of the confessional and to prevent the exploitation of the contrite, so too is it now necessary to develop a theology and practice to protect the victims of the penitent in the case of sexual violence. What this requires is not a renouncement of the seal of the confessional, but its refinement to suit the pastoral needs of a congregation. For example, leaders in the Greek Orthodox church are already leaning in this direction with Father George Morelli, an Orthodox priest in America, advising that:

The priest must act out of love and the purity and clarity of his heart, for both the victim or potential victim and the abuser. If the abuser comes to the priest, the priest must attempt to convince the abuser to accept the fact that they have as serious problem and must seek the help that is needed. This may involve emergency hospitalization or perhaps incarceration. In this case the hospital staff would be mandatory reporters. If a priest is a mandatory reporter, this information must be told to all involved and the laws of the jurisdiction must be followed. Clergy also have to intervene to protect potential victims if necessary. This may include referral to appropriate emergency psychological care. In the most serious cases such as a credible death threat, an immediate call to police and/or emergency services would be warranted. If a priest is not a licensed mental health practitioner or mandated reporter and situations of abuse (physical, sexual, psychological, or neglect) were disclosed, I would suggest telling the abuser that you will follow up on this like the “hound of heaven.” Morally the priest cannot allow abuse to continue. It may take the priest or someone else to be physical present to guard the abused victim. Whatever it takes to protect and safeguard the victim (or potential victim) must be done.

In addition, it should be noted that monastic rules demonstrate how Catholic authorities have in the past dealt vigorously with the sexual abuse of minors by clergy with both punitive and preventative measures. According to St. Basil:

A cleric or monk who seduces youths or young boys or is found kissing or in any other impure situations is to be publicly flogged and lose his tonsure. When his hair has been shorn, his face is to be foully besmeared with spit and he is to be bound in iron chains. For six months he will languish in prison-like confinement and on three days of each week shall fast on barely bread in the evening. After this he will spend another six months under the custodial care of a spiritual elder, remaining in a segregated cell, giving himself to manual work and prayer, subject to vigils and prayers. He may go for walks but always under the custodial care of two spiritual brethren, and he shall never again associate with youths in private conversation or in counselling them” (C.W. Barlow, Rule for Monastery of Compludo [Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1969], 169).

Thus, there is precedent in Catholic tradition for taking a vigorous action against clerical abuse of children and there are already people thinking within the great tradition that it is pastorally necessary to report perpetrators to authorities.

Fourth, there is a valid legal argument for government interfering in the sanctity of the confessional. According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights § 18.3, concerning religious freedom: “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to 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.” Religious freedom is invaluable in a secular and pluralistic democracy, but it is not absolute. A person’s religious freedom can be curtailed if it burdens the rights of other persons, like the right to life and the right to safety from harm. That is why governments can limit religious freedom when and only when it is necessary to ensure someone’s safety. One could sensibly argue that the seal of the confessional, insofar that it protects abusers and perpetuates abuse; causes harm to members of the public and therefore can be legitimately curtailed. Now, the limitation of religious freedom should not be deployed in illegitimate circumstances (see the Siracusa principles on the limitation and derogation of provisions), and nothing here illegitimates the seal of the confessional in normal circumstances. However, international law on religious freedom provides legal grounds for limiting religious freedom in order to defend the rights and lives of others.

Fifth, Catholics may also wish to consider a missional reason for changing their practice of confession and the seal of the confessional.

The sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church all over the world have tarnished, perhaps irreparably, the reputation of the church for a whole generation. Many critics have rushed to find a single cause of the endemic abuse, such as clergy celibacy, the incompetence and unconscionable behaviour of bishops, the cover-ups and secrecy, and the seal of the confessional, all as enabling factors. My own hunch is that it has more to do with a particular clerical culture that tolerated such abuse than with a tradition or theology that supposedly enabled it. Furthermore, there are sincere efforts by many within the Catholic Church to deal with the scourge of child sex abuse; the recent defrocking of Cardinal McCarick is proof of that point. Let us also remember that Roman Catholics are not the only one’s wrestling with this problem, other religious and secular organizations too have discovered unspeakable evils happening in their midst and often responded in deficient ways.

However, the fact remains that sexual abuse is a particular problem for the Roman Catholic world, especially in places like Pennsylvania, where it has been revealed that six per cent of all priests were sexual predators. The abuse, its cover up, the refusal to address its underlying causes, the failure to listen to victims, and the unwillingness to make reporting mandatory, has led to an exodus of people from the church, and represents an insurmountable barrier for the Catholic church to connect with the unchurched public. I fear that a haemorrhaging of the laity will continue for Catholics and their mission to make Christ known will prove ineffective until a comprehensive pastoral review of its clerical standards and sacramental theology is undertaken.

It is a matter of missional imperative and pastoral care that Catholics interrogate the resources of the great tradition to defend the importance of confession, protect the penitent, and protect the vulnerable from abuse. That is because, ultimately, the sacraments exist or the sake of the people, not the people for the sacraments.

Let me finish with a personal plea. I have only ever worn my clerical attire in Melbourne city on two occasions, and both times I was assaulted. Once verbally by a young male yelling, “God is dead” with the added expletive line of “F#$% paedo!” A second time, a man randomly tried to shoulder charge me as I was crossing the street, to which I only narrowly avoided being knocked over with some agile footwork! Why did this happen? Probably because they assumed that I was a Catholic priest. I do not think the two assailants hate Catholics because of decisions made at the Fourth Lateran Council, nor because of the doctrine of transubstantiation, nor because of strong feelings about Notre Dame University or Celtic F.C. in Glasgow. It is a hatred based on child sexual abuse, its cover-up, its perpetuation, and failing to do what must be done to deal with it. It is a hatred that is, I believe, entirely understandable.

But it need not be that way. I’m always inspired by the story of how English actor Alec Guinness converted to Catholicism (Guinness was the original Obi-Wan Kenobi for the Millennials out there). The story is fairly well known: Guinness was in France filming Father Brown, based on G.K. Chesterton’s priestly detective. One evening Guinness was walking down the street of a French village in priestly attire when a local child saw him and mistook him for a real Catholic priest. The child promptly ran up to him, trustingly took his hand, and proceeded to walk with him down the road, blithely chattering away at Guinness. The trust the child had for Catholic priests left a deep impact on Guinness and set him on the path towards Catholicism. He wrote in his biography: “I reflected that a Church that could inspire such confidence in a child, making priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming or as creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.”

One can only long for the day when a priest’s attire will not be a reason for hatred and loathing, but will again inspire such confidence, hope, and trust!

But if that is to happen, the Catholic Church needs either a reformation or at least a reformulation of its pastoral care and sacramental theology to deal with the scourge of clergy sexual abuse. Lifting the seal of confession is, I submit, not only necessary but entirely sound when considered in light of Scripture, moral discourse, tradition, international law, and the church’s pastoral responsibility and missional witness.

Rev Dr Michael F. Bird is an Anglican priest and Academic Dean at Ridley College, in Melbourne, Australia. He blogs at Euangelion and can be followed @mbird12

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.


Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments