Andrew Dickens: We must not criminalise what is said in confessional

Andrew Dickens,
Publish Date
Sunday, 18 August 2019, 11:36AM
The proposed law has prompted backlash. (Photo / Getty)

Forgive me father for I have sinned.

The seal of the Catholic confessional. What's said in the confessional stays in the confessional. It's been a precept of the church for centuries. Penitents enter the booth to confess their sins and transgressions to a priest to receive spiritual comfort, advice and absolution. A forgiving of the sin in the eyes of God's representative on Earth.

But not in Victoria Australia where legislation has been introduced to the state parliament which would effectively force priests to report suspected child abuse revealed to them in the confessional. There are people in New Zealand who want to do this too.

Priests are obviously aghast at the idea. Because under their laws any priest that does break the seal stands to be excommunicated. Thrown out of the church. That's pretty heavy and so no wonder the Archbishop of Victoria has said that he would rather go to jail than break the confessional seal.

Under the legislation penalties of up to three years behind bars could apply for priests who are found to have knowingly concealed child abuse information.

Now I can see why someone in the legislature might see this as a good idea. After all the safety of children in particular should be paramount and the Catholic Church has not covered itself with glory in field of sexual abuse, particularly of minors. So if they're hearing about crimes then why shouldn't they be compelled to report that to the authorities.

But step back a second and think of the consequences.

Firstly if you, as a civilian, heard about a crime are you compelled to report it. Of course not. It's your personal decision to inform the authorities. But you don't face sentences if you choose to keep your silence. It's the flipside of freedom of speech which is the right to silence.

While a pedo or sexual offender may admit guilt to a priest, to get a conviction is going to take a lot more than that. Evidence for a start. The co-operation and bravery and testimony of the victim is needed.  So confessional testimony will not be a silver bullet.

Meanwhile to confirm his testimony a priest would be required to appear in court to convey what he has heard in the confessional, which at it's basis is hearsay, a very weak form of evidence. The priest is not an eyewitness nor has he heard an objective account of the alleged crimes. So it's not a strong addition towards the fight against abuse.

There's also the legal privilege that has traditionally been afforded to the confessional. Similar to the privilege afforded to parliament. In New Zealand the confessional privilege is enshrined in the Evidence Act.

And then there's that perception that the Catholic church are abuse apologists. They're not. Under their own rules. They have a manual for what happens in the confessional.

It says if they hear about criminal stuff the penitent should be told to tell the authorities. They should be told that the church will help them admit everything to the authorities. It also says that absolution and forgiveness is dependent on the penitent handing themselves in and making things right. It's not a get out of hell free card.

To criminalise a confessional confession is to stop it's real power. If someone's admitted to a priest that they've done terrible things means they're on a path to atoning for their crimes. To criminalise priests who hear this first admission of guilt would stop that happening. It would stop offenders taking that first step. No one's going to admit a thing in a confessional is they know it's going to come back to bite them

In a perverse way, breaking the seal of the confessional is creating even more secrecy about dark acts than ever before.

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