Priests owe it to God not to report abuse confessions

By Barry Duke
Patheos blog
July 2, 2019

AN intransigent Vatican is digging its heels in over pressure to have priests report sexual abuse confessions to the authorities, and is complaining of anti-Catholic bias.

According to this report, a document issued by the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary, which deals with issues of the sacrament of confession, said no government or law could force clergy to violate the seal:

Because this duty comes directly from God.

The document, which did not mention any countries or the sexual abuse crisis, complained of:

A worrying negative prejudice against the Catholic Church.

Most countries’ legal systems respect the religious right of a Catholic priest not to reveal what he has learnt in confession, similar to attorney-client privilege.

But the sexual abuse crisis that has embroiled the Catholic Church around the world has seen this right challenged more frequently.

In Australia, an inquiry into child abuse recommended that the country introduce a law forcing religious leaders to report child abuse, including priests told of it during confession.

So far, two of Australia’s eight states have introduced laws making it a crime for priests to withhold information about abuse heard in confession. Others are still considering their response.

In May, the California state senate passed a bill to require the seal of confession to be broken if a priests learns of or suspects sexual abuse while hearing the confession of a fellow priest or a colleague such as a Church worker.

Church leaders in both the United States and Australia have opposed such laws and the document backed them up unequivocally. The report added:

Any political action or legislative initiative aimed at breaking the inviolability of the sacramental seal would constitute an unacceptable offence against the (freedom of the Church). The Church does not receive its legitimacy from individual States, but from God; it (breaking the seal) would also constitute a violation of religious freedom, legally fundamental to all other freedoms, including the freedom of conscience of individual citizens, both penitents and confessors.

Victims advocates said the lifting of the seal of confession, even partially, was drastic but necessary under the circumstances.

Said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the US-based abuse tracking group

As a Catholic, I too am shaken by incursions on the seal of confession. But it’s the leaders of the Catholic church, not civil society, that have gotten us to this point.

Secret church files made public in Australia and the United States reveal many instances of confession being used to absolve an abuser, allowing him to remain in ministry and re-offend.

Meanwhile it’s reported here that, in the UK, almost 400 clergy and volunteers from the Church of England have been convicted of child sex offences.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse heard 390 “in positions of trust’” had been found guilty of sex offences involving children including sexual abuse and downloading indecent images.

Some 330 civil claims have been brought against dioceses, including “significant numbers” dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, the inquiry heard.

A culture of  “excessive deference” towards church leaders and a lack of training about child protection meant some clergy who were accused of abuse were allowed to keep their jobs and even promoted.

Victims who made complaints were discredited or belittled by congregations and religious leaders who prized the reputation of the Church over the need to protect children or punish offenders, the counsel to the inquiry said.

Victims suffered “considerable mental health difficulties” and sometimes lost their faith in God as a result of their abuse, Fiona Scolding, QC, said


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