Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse has, I’m sure, the best of intentions, but its recent recommendations concerning the Confessional seal are troubling. The commission proposes that if a priest learns about abuse during confession, or if suspicion of such abuse arises, then he should inform the authorities. Failure to do so should be regarded as a criminal offence.

We can debate whether such rubrics would help or hinder the crucial task of preventing child abuse. On the one hand, a priest would be encouraged to pick up the phone and report an offender. On the other, if a sexual predator feared that his confessions would be divulged, then would he ever risk speaking to his priest in the first place?

This isn’t about feeling sorry for the abuser but more about sustaining the options that are currently open to the priest. An offender can, for instance, be encouraged to reveal his misdeeds to the authorities, speak with the priest about his crimes outside of the sacramental context or, perhaps, any hope of reconciliation could be withheld until the offender took appropriate action.

Similarly, mandatory reporting of abuse would allow the priest to pave the way towards justice for a child who, during confession, bravely told of his or her ordeals. Then again, at present, the priest can urge victims to tell their teachers (mandatory reporters already) or their parents. This isn’t necessarily a case of passing the buck: the confessional might help an abused child who, riddled by confused emotions, welcomes a place where his or her confidentiality is guaranteed.

The moral arithmetic is tortuous, but let’s consider a more fundamental stumbling block. If the Royal Commission’s recommendations made their way on to the statute book it would be hard for any Catholic priest to abide by them. Canon law decrees that “the sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner for any reason.” If the priest directly discloses matters discussed in the confessional he is to be automatically excommunicated.

Some Australian Catholics, including a number of figures in lofty positions, have suggested that a distinction could be made between a person revealing his own sins during confession and someone who recounts the activities of others. By this logic, it would be acceptable to disclose the testimony of a child who speaks about being abused. One could easily imagine a situation in which some priests were willing to pass on the testimony of victimised children while others refused to disclose anything.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection