Australian bishops, religious say they can't violate seal of confession

IMAGE: CNS photo/Royal Commission


SYDNEY, Australia (CNS) — Australia’s
Catholic bishops and religious orders, responding to recommendations from the Royal
Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, accepted 98
percent of its suggestions, but said they could not accept recommendations that
would violate the seal of confession.

“We are committed to the safeguarding
of children and vulnerable people while maintaining the seal. We do not see
safeguarding and the seal as mutually exclusive,” said the preamble to a
57-response to dozens of recommendations concerning child safety, formation of
priest and religious workers, ongoing training in child safety and even
out-of-home care service providers.

The response, published Aug. 31, came
eight-and-a-half months after the Royal Commission released its 17-volume
report on child sexual abuse. The report was based on five years of hearings,
nearly 26,000 emails, and more than 42,000 phone calls from concerned
Australians. In February 2017, Australian church leaders spent three weeks
testifying before the commission.

The Royal Commission recommended that the
bishops consult with the Holy See to clarify whether “information received
from a child during the sacrament of reconciliation that they have been
sexually abused is covered by the seal of confession” and whether “if
a person confesses during the sacrament of reconciliation to perpetrating child
sexual abuse, absolution can and should be withheld until they report
themselves to civil authorities.”

The commission also recommended that
confession “only be conducted in an open space within the clear line of
sight of another adult.”

The response from the bishops and religious
said dioceses would examine confessional spaces and practices. It said confessions
of groups of children were normally conducted in the open and that the Catholic
Professional Standards Limited it had established was developing standards and

“However, the ‘seal of confession’ is
inviolable for the priest confessor,” it said.

“Children will be less rather than more
safe if mandatory reporting of confessions were required: the rare instance
where a perpetrator or victim might have raised this in confession would be
less likely to occur if confidence in the sacramental seal were undermined; and
so an opportunity would be lost to encourage a perpetrator to self-report to
civil authorities or victims to seek safety,” said the response.

“Mandatory reporting of confessions
would also be a violation of freedom of religious belief and worship,” it

The bishops and religious noted that they
had marked a few recommendations “For further consideration,” and about
a dozen that mentioned the Holy See had been noted to the Vatican. In October, leaders
of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and the chair of the church’s
Truth, Justice and Healing Council met with Vatican officials to discuss issues
emerging from the royal commission investigations.

For instance, the Royal Commission said the
bishops should urge the Vatican to change canon law so that “the
pontifical secret” — the confidentiality surrounding a canonical
investigation and process — “does not apply to any aspect of allegations
or canonical disciplinary processes relating to child sexual abuse.” The
response said the bishops had sought canonical advice and consulted with the
Holy See, but noted that the pontifical secret “does not in any way inhibit
a bishop or religious leader from reporting instances of child sexual abuse to
civil authorities.”

The Royal Commission asked that the bishops
urge the Vatican to eliminate the “imputability test” of canon law
when dealing with cases of clerical sexual abuse; the imputability test
basically means that a person’s level of guilt for a crime is lessened to the
degree that he or she was not aware that the action was wrong; if the imputability
is diminished, canon law would recommend a lesser penalty for the guilty.

In response to a recommendation that the
bishops work with the Vatican to amend canon law to remove the time limit for
commencement of canonical actions relating to child sexual abuse, the bishops
said this was already the practice in Australia. According to rules issued in
2003, the statute of limitation is 20 years after the victim reaches the age of
18; however, church law also says that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith can set aside that limit.

Several recommendations from the royal
commission concerned celibacy — the promise not to marry. The response said
the bishops noted “that the Royal Commission made no finding of a causal
connection between celibacy and child sexual abuse; that voluntary celibacy is
a long-established and positive practice of the church in both East and West,
particularly for bishops and religious life; and that inadequate initial and
continuing formation of priests and religious for celibate living may have
contributed to a heightened risk of child sexual abuse, but not celibacy as a
state of life in and of itself.”

In March, Pope Francis authorized an Australian
plenary council, a meeting in which decisions become binding on the church in
the country. The bishops said it was time to look at where the church in
Australia was headed.

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