From Richard Leonard S J in THE TABLET, 12 September 2018:
In the present climate in Australia, Catholic bishops cannot win a trick. In their long-awaited 60-page response to the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, they accepted 98 per cent of the commission’s recommendations. But this was drowned out in the media coverage by their refusal to accept one recommendation, and their insistence that others were directed to the Holy See, not them.
It didn’t help that the bishops’ report was released in the shadow of Francis’ trip to Ireland, where, perhaps understandably, protesters had commanded as much attention as the Pope – and that all this came at the same time as Archbishop Viganò’s lurid allegations of the cover-up of sexual misconduct by Vatican figures over three papacies hit the international headlines.
Ordinary Australians are filled with rage against the leaders of the Catholic Church in regard to sex abuse and its cover-up. But the relentless focus on a handful of areas where a genuine debate is to be had, about where the rights of a secular inquiry starts and the prerogatives of religious liberty end, does not make the Church safer for children and vulnerable adults.
One issue that drew fierce criticism from the Royal Commission was celibacy. It did not claim that celibacy causes sexual abuse but found that it fosters a clerical culture that lacks a healthy attitude to sexuality in general, can infantilise some adults, and encourages priests to believe that their first obligation is to protect the Church.
While valiantly asserting that many blessings have come from having a celibate clergy, the bishops in their response said they would be open to asking the Vatican to revisit the mandatory celibacy of priests, especially if this was to be recommended by the Plenary Council. In 2020 this will bring Catholics from all over Australia together to discuss the future of the Church.
Surveys show that even most practising Catholics in Australia believe that celibacy should no longer be essential to the priesthood. The media take was sadly predictable. Children have paid the price for being the junior members of a celibate club that lacks transparency and accountability, and resists outside scrutiny.
The loudest criticism, however, concerned the Confessional Seal, or, more precisely, the Royal Commission’s recommendation that there should be mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse when it is disclosed to a priest hearing Confession. The bishops pushed back firmly on that one. But their protests will come to no avail because most Australian states are in the process of legislating against priest/penitent privilege. It’s worth noting that the commission made no such recommendation in regard to the legal privileges of journalists or lawyers and their sources or clients.
I am 25 years a priest this December. I have never heard a paedophile’s confession. Having asked at least 100 priests if they ever have, the answer is always, “No. Never.” Some might be withholding the truth, but not all are. Though I concede it has almost certainly happened, seeking to have one’s confession heard goes against the obsession for secrecy that this crime feeds upon. The reality is that these days parishes would be lucky to have a couple of penitents a week.
In future, on hearing a confession of child sex abuse, I will be expected to immediately proceed to the police station where, almost certainly, I would not be able to name the offender, give an address or describe him or her. Maybe, for identification purposes, the state will demand closed-circuit cameras inside Reconciliation rooms. Since confessors are simply mandatory reporters, they wouldn’t have any role in discerning if a claim of abuse was true. The police and the courts would reach a judgement on that.
As particularly egregious as child sexual abuse is to all of us, you could make a valid argument for the mandatory reporting of a host of other despicable felonies – domestic violence, rape or murder, for example – confessed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Maybe in the present and coming climate, both for the good order of this sacrament and for the protection of good men, we should consider the immediate re-introduction of the Third Rite of Reconciliation as the parish norm.
But the lived reality of this sacrament has next to no traction in this debate. Communication is about what is heard, not about what is said. In the face of the public’s well-founded and grave mistrust of the Church, we are defending a duty of absolute non-disclosure that seems to have emerged in the form we know it in the seventh century, and was codified in 1215. When public mistrust meets sexual abuse, the protection of even one child beats canon law every time.
Richard Leonard SJ is the author of Hatch, Match and Dispatch: A Catholic Guide to the Sacraments (forthcoming, Paulist Press).