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Unintended consequences await as Australia tells priests to break the seal of confession


If anyone predicted that the Catholic Church would face a showdown with a modern-day government, few if any would have forecast that this duel would be between the Church and Australia.

Australia is a democracy. Legislatures duly elected by the people under constitutional safeguards enact laws. The national government, chosen by a majority in the federal parliament, administers the laws.

A high court, the equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, judges the constitutionality and basic justice of laws. Throughout Australian history, the people have demanded impartiality and thoroughness of the courts.

Between one-third and one-fourth of the population identifies itself as Roman Catholic. The Church long has held a place of esteem in the Australian society.

So, what is the problem? Tragically, and outrageously, as in other countries, such as the United States, Australia was hit hard by incidents of sexual abuse of youth by Catholic clergy, including inaction by authorities. Credibility for the Church officially has suffered. The government felt that it was duty-bound to enact laws and adopt policies to protect vulnerable children from peril.

A Royal Commission was appointed — a device used on occasion to investigate major problems in Australia and to recommend solutions. The commission drew its authority not from politics or political officials but from Queen Elizabeth II, queen of Australia, and Australia’s constitutional, nonpolitical head of state, hence the term “royal.” Experts in law, child development, psychiatric disorder and so on were members. Politics was ignored.

The Royal Commission in this case proposed, among other suggestions, that the civil law should compel priests to disclose publicly if they hear crimes of child sexual abuse in sacramental confession and even name the penitent.

Australia’s bishops, totally supported by the Vatican, have said “no way.” No priest may divulge what he hears as a confessor. If it means his conviction by a civil court and imprisonment, so be it.

This unqualified stand is nothing new. Ancient and unqualified in Catholic history is the seal of the confessional. The threat of being jailed, or even worse, is not new. Priests have been killed or tortured to protect the seal, from centuries past to more recent tyrannies — Gestapo tactics in the time of Hitler or practices in communist countries.

Why this determined stand by the Church? Resistance to Hitler or the communists is one thing, but who can excuse sexual abuse of innocent youth or not join the effort to prevent it?

Exactly. This is the reason for the seal. It assists a person in recognizing the evil of an action and in admitting personal responsibility in committing the evil. Nothing is excused. Instead, it is the contrary. Admitting sin, and wishing not to sin again, are what the sacrament is all about. Long, long experience that enabling people in this process of facing facts and sinning no more is in trusting that sacramental confession is private.

Past sinfulness is essential to confession, but so is future holiness. Every valid confession must include the penitent’s absolute resolution not to sin again. Without this “firm purpose of amendment,” no priest can offer sacramental absolution. Catholics learn this as children in religious instruction.

The Church knows that human nature is weak. Good resolutions may be forgotten or overwhelmed.

Confessors try to advise penitents how to keep their good intentions, urging addicts to seek the help of specialists, or pedophiles to establish boundaries, and, realizing the pathology of pedophilia, to get professional help and to attempt to repair the effects of sins, if only by not committing wrongs again. Sin no more. Follow the Lord.

These steps may fail, but, considering experience, they also may succeed.

Queensland already has passed a law to force violation of the seal. Australians well may discover that it will bring more harm than good.

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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