Banning confession does nothing to protect kids
Politicians and social commentators were up in arms this week over the Catholic sacrament of confession.
In a furious media frenzy, MPs from the whole spectrum inveighed the confidentiality of this Catholic sacrament. The sacrament, it was argued, is helping to protect child sex offenders. The prevailing sentiment can be summarized by quoting Nicola Roxon, the head of the royal commission into the handling of child abuse – she sees the seal of confession as “really abhorrent”.
It seems to me that in the heat of the moment our politicians have overlooked a few crucial issues. Considering these issues might help us to make a more informed judgement on the matter.
We first of all should recall the pathology of child abusers. Paedophilia is not just defined by a physical attraction to minors; it also concerns a kind of moral sickness. They don’t think they have done anything wrong. They are unlikely to frequent a sacrament like confession, which has as its foundation a person’s sense of wrongdoing. The Catholic Bishop of Parramatta, Anthony Fisher, says as much. Perhaps some priests may go, but the majority will not. Last week Fr. Frank Brennan said that, in his 27 years as a priest, he has never once heard a confession about child abuse.
Law makers mustn’t forget that one of the reasons people go to confession is because it is confidential. If we take away the confidentiality of confession, people will stop going. Any law requiring priests to break the seal of confession will be largely self-defeating.
Whilst commentators have focused on the seal of confession, there is also another aspect to the sacrament that is relevant to the debate. Point 1450 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that to be a valid confession there has to be genuine sorrow and a firm purpose of changing one’s life. Confession is not a get-out-of-hell free pass that you go and collect from a priest. You actually need to be remorseful. Unrepentant child abusers – the kind described in the media recently – don’t go to confession, because its totally useless for them.
In any event, a skilled confessor will counsel the penitent and guide them to approach the police. Absolution may even be conditional on turning oneself in, according to one Catholic theologian.
There is also an argument that, whilst it may not sit well with secularists, is still relevant. We here need to consider the issue of religious freedom. Are we justified in making a judgement about which religious practices should be allowed? Catholics believe that this sacrament is sacred; its an opportunity for the penitent to reconcile themselves with God. Breaking the seal of confession is “tantamount to trampling on a host”, to quote one Catholic bishop. A priest who breaks the seal is automatically excommunicated (i.e. kicked out of the Catholic Church).
Some may say that this is medieval Catholic superstition. But, as professor Sarah Joseph of the Castran Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University says, the views of religious people cannot be glibly dismissed as irrational and out of date: “Notions of freedom of religion would have little meaning if they only apply to manifestations of rational beliefs shared by the majority: the very nature of religion is to buy into leaps of faith beyond the objectively provable.”
The question we are considering is this: ‘Do the benefits of breaking the seal of confession outweigh the drawbacks?’. It would seem that the impact of forcing the priests to break the seal of confession would be highly negligible. And even in the unlikely situation that investigations would be aided, a law is unlikely to have an effect on the resolve of Catholic priests to respect the seal of confession. Consider the situation in Ireland at the moment, where 800 Catholic priests have vowed to defy a new law obliging them to break the seal of confession. Some may think this is appalling. But if you consider that these priests have devoted their lives to their faith, it might not seem so terrible.
The philosophy behind any such law is questionable; And pragmatically it will probably achieve very little. Is it really worthwhile creating an almighty split between Church and state?
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