Priest in the confessional © Harald Oppitz (KNA)
Australia requires priests to report abuse cases confided to them in confession. Several states have passed laws on this. The conflict between church and state is programmed.
"If there should be a law requiring priests to break the seal of confession, I am one of those who will not obey that law," wrote Jesuit and lawyer Frank Brennan back in 2016 in "Eureka Street," a publication of the Australian Jesuits.
Meanwhile, such laws already exist in the city-state of Canberra and several other states. The policy cites a recommendation in the final report of the state abuse commission, which the panel presented in December 2017.
State law vs. church law
Without exception, all persons who learn of sexual abuse should be required to report it to the police, the recommendation reads. "This recommendation includes information given in religious confessions," the report explicitly states, reasoning, "The Commission has heard reports of cases in religious settings in which perpetrators who confessed to child sexual abuse sought forgiveness and then did it again."Now it's state law against church law: because a violation of the seal of confession automatically results in excommunication for priests.
Bishops and politicians agree that children must be protected, sexual abuse must not be covered up but reported to police. But church leaders say the seal of confession must not be lifted from this duty.
Threat to religious freedom
Christopher Prowse, Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn, sees legal compulsion to break the seal of confession as a "threat to religious freedom". He says the measure does nothing to protect children. "Regrettably, breaking the seal of confession will not prevent abuse and it does not help us in our ongoing efforts to improve the safety of children in Catholic institutions," Prowse wrote in a well-received piece for the Canberra Times.
Charlie Pickering, on the other hand, speaks from the heart of many Australians who are outraged by the church's refusal to give up the sacrament of confession in abuse cases. The Church, thundered the prominent host of the satirical magazine "The Weekly" in the broadcast of 20. June, protect "the perpetrators in the name of God".
As a horror example of the protection of offenders in God's name, the presenter cites the case of Catholic priest Michael McArdle, who, he says, committed a total of 1.500 abuse confessions. "He was told 1.Forgiven 500 times. He was merely told to go home and pray."
Abusers usually don't confess to abuse
Sociologist Stephen de Weger is researching sexual misconduct by priests at the Queensland University of Technology's Faculty of Law. For the scientist, the debate about the secrecy of confession is rather a side ie. "It's not a big problem because most of those who sexually abuse children do not confess their behavior or their sin," de Weger told the Catholic News Agency (KNA).
However, the expert does not want to exclude the possibility that there are cases in which pedophile priests confess their acts to each other and absolve themselves. "Bishops and the church need to keep making it clear that this form of 'confession' does not absolve sins," de Weger said. Priests barred from this form of forgiveness would then have to live with fear of damnation, according to Catholic conviction.
Frank Brennan pointed out a way out of the abuse and confessional secrecy dilemma back in 2016: "If a pedophile told me he or she had molested a child, I would demand as part of the penance that that person report himself or herself to the police and seek therapy. If he refuses, I would refuse absolution," Brennan says, but adds, "But I would not break the seal of confession."