The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has uncovered a number of horrible and disheartening tales within various churches and other organisations. It has led to a number of churches reviewing their practices and governance regarding the reporting of child sexual abuse and abuse more generally. Some commentators, usually secular ones, have advocated that in response to the Royal Commission, priests within the Catholic church should be forced into a kind of mandatory reporting for various acts disclosed during the course of confession.
I must at the start share that I am not a Catholic. I am a devout Protestant Evangelical. I disagree with Catholics on everything from works-based salvation to trans-substantiation. Importantly for this issue, I also disagree on with Catholics on the ability of Priests, or the Church more generally, to dispense forgiveness or be the mediator for confession between God and humanity.
However, I understand the importance of having a right standing before God, lest there be eternal consequences. Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, understand forgiveness as being central to having a right standing before God. I understand that for Catholics, the role of attending Confession is indispensable in this process. Many Catholic priests would rather go to jail or perhaps even go to death to protect the secrecy of the Confession booth.
Those who advocate for this reform give the impression that they do so either out of ignorance or a nefarious desire to strip the Church of any sort of moral, ethical and eternal content. They don’t understand that for Christians, forgiveness is a matter (eternal) of life or death. While as a Protestant, I do not need to worry that I am not forgiven – that forgiveness is dispensed by faith in Jesus Christ alone, for my Catholic friends, this is not so simple. Who is going to go to confession, a critical part of Catholic living, and be frank before God about their failings, their sins, if they fear being dragged away by the authorities.
To implement any kind of mandatory reporting for crimes confessed in the booth is to place the state between humanity and God – a most grotesque intrusion. To implement this kind of reporting is to place the state as the decision maker – a decision maker with eternal consequences. It is, like most things associated with big government, to make government God.
So what of the heinous acts, the child sexual abuse and unconscientious abuse of power perpetuated by many people, both inside and outside the church, among both nominal Catholics and among the clergy? They should be punished to the fullest extent of the law, thrown in jail. That is not at issue. The question is what is the best way to ensure that these individuals are brought before the criminal justice system. The confessional mandatory reporting suggestion is, as outlined above, a most draconian option – an option of absolute last resort. Indeed, the Common Law for many centuries has recognised confessional privilege as a rule of evidence preventing the admission of such evidence in court proceedings. This has now been codified in s 127 Evidence Act 1995 (NSW).
Is there another course of action? The exertion of much stronger pressure by Priests and by Dioceses on such offenders to self-report is undoubtedly part of the solution. So is the reform of practice with regards to the tenure of clergy (though of course this is a much more difficult endeavour). Education of children and parishioners as to the importance of reporting crimes, a real culture change, also will play a part. Indeed, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses is in and of itself an important step towards transparency and accountability.
A closer examination into Catholic Church practice and doctrine will show that there are already powerful incentives, surrounding the withholding of grace and forgiveness, acting on the reporting culture – something which makes me feel more at ease expressing my position above. I do not have all the answers as to how reporting can best be achieved, though I suspect setting up a kind of whistle-blower tip-off system may play a part. What I do know is that an intrusion into confessional privilege is not the answer.