Nothing Sacred about Church Confessional ó Not a Damned Thing
By Gemma Tognini
December 19, 2017
|Illustration: Don Lindsay/The West Australian|
I was on the phone to a friend talking about a tricky dynamic sheíd been trying to navigate between her and a colleague. My friend is strong, successful and capable.
She is generous and kind, bloody hilarious and great with people in general. Still, sheíd been having problems with a particular chap and couldnít nail down why.
She said part of it was his demeanour, the way he spoke to her, the way she felt belittled by him, but even that wasnít enough to explain her overwhelming sense of paralysis and nausea.
Her need to run to the bathroom after each difficult interaction they had. In short, she felt incapable of navigating a situation she would normally have sailed through.
As I listened to her talk, it got quiet on the other end of the phone. Then I heard crying. A soft, heavy sobbing. In an instant, almost like the gentle cracking of an eggshell, it had dawned on her why she had reacted this way.
ďHe reminds me of the man who sexually abused me when I was a little girl,Ē she said.
Iím sharing this story with my friendís permission, even though youíll never know her name.
And Iím sharing this story because last week when the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse was handed down, there was one response that sparked a flame of rage within me that I have been unable to extinguish.
The swiftness with which the Catholic Church defended what it calls the ďseal of the confessionalĒ stunned me, to be honest, though it shouldnít have. Itís a response that was entirely on form.
Now, before I go on let me make a couple of things clear. Iím writing this as a Christian, a singularly dull fact in my view, but relevant in the context of this column. Iím not a church hater, an atheist, hater of any faith, let alone the Catholic faith.
I went to a Catholic school and had a terrific experience there. My own evolution of faith over the past 40-odd years took me from being a kid who had Catholicism chosen for her, to a person who, as a teenager found a home, if you like, in a contemporary Christian congregation.
What Iím saying is that Iím not taking aim from the sidelines as a spectator in this game. I am well and truly in the arena.
So, back to this confessional thing and let me recap and get straight to the point.
In its response to the report at the weekend, the Vatican told Australian media outlets it remained committed to ďbeing close to the Catholic Church in Australia ... as they listen to and accompany victims and survivors, in an effort to bring about healing and justiceĒ.
In the same breath, the Church said bishops remained bound by the seal of the confessional, even if that meant not acting on information from a victim, or protecting a sex offender who confesses.
Sex offender ó itís almost too clean, too sanitised a term for a crime so ruinous and filthy. These are people who defile children. Who rob from them and scar them.
Some have argued that stripping priests of the protective element of canon law is only one small piece of the puzzle, that the statistical odds of either confession or allegation of abuse happening in that context are low, as relative to other means.
Perhaps, but thatís not the point.
The substantive point is that at an institutional level, at a procedural level, the conscious decision has been taken to preference tradition over transparency; to protect the anonymity of the sex criminal over the child they defile and in all likelihood, would continue to defile.
How can change, real, lasting change take place in any institution or organisation that clings to outdated traditions that donít even come close to meeting community expectations, and Iíll wager, their own parishioners. I donít believe it can.
If you take faith, God, whatever, out of the equation (letís do that for a second) then the Churchís response in relation to the confessional seal is even more indefensible.
Thereís nothing sacred about it. Not a damned thing.
If you think Iím being too harsh in this assessment, then I would kindly invite you to look my friend in the eye and tell that to her.
If priests arenít compelled to report to police, that plainly means the Church considers canon law to supersede Australian law.
That is just as unacceptable as the concept of sharia law (and with it, the validation of practices such as female genital mutilation, child marriage and polygamy) being similarly above Australian law.
The Church I belong to has a mandatory reporting policy. Any person who volunteers, whether directly with children or not, must have a working with children clearance, and is trained to recognise the signs of grooming and predatory behaviour. Isnít this just a base-level approach?
I struggle to understand how any organisation, of any kind, wouldnít clear the decks to remove even the possibility of an abuser going unchecked.
Itís about putting position in the Church, the threat of ex-communication ahead of reporting a crime. Itís not about numbers.
Itís not about likelihood.
Itís about that child at risk potentially being your child and knowing youíd do anything and everything to make sure theyíre safe.