Vatican tells Australian Church that seal of confession not up for debate

By Charles Collins
September 05, 2020

Although reaffirming the principle that the seal of confession can never be violated, the Vatican has told Church leaders in Australia that victims of sexual abuse should be encouraged to report abuse to the proper authorities.

Recognizing the question of the seal of confession “is one of great delicacy and that it is related intimately with a most sacred treasure of the Church’s life, that is to say, with the sacraments,” the Vatican said “the confessional provides an opportunity – perhaps the only one – for those who have committed sexual abuse to admit to the fact.”

The comments came in a series of “observations” to the August 2018 response of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference and Catholic Religious Australia to the Final Report of the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, published in December 2017.

Australia’s Royal Commission into Institution Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was established in 2013, and four years later delivered its final 17-volume report and 189 recommendations.

The commission heard the testimony of more than 8,000 sexual abuse victims – of those who were abused in religious institutions, 62 percent were Catholics.

In its final report, the commission recommended that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference request that the Vatican consider introducing voluntary celibacy for clergy and end the seal of confession for cases of abuse, as well as requiring that abusers confess to the police before sacramental absolution can be given.

In its response, the Australian bishops’ conference it would comply with 98 percent of the Commission’s recommendations — however it adamantly rejected the Commission’s call to remove the seal of the confessional.

The bishops also said they would consult with the Holy See on other recommendations advised by the commission, including on the retention of documents pertaining to sexual abuse cases.

The Vatican response to the Australian document was dated Feb. 26, 2020, but only released on Sep. 4.

The Holy See noted that many of the recommendations made by the Royal Commission have already been enacted for the universal Church, including on the proper vetting of candidates for episcopal office.

Although, it added “the Holy See acknowledges that, as with all procedures, improvements can always be made, especially in the light of experience. In that context, the Holy See shares the concern of the Royal Commission that the question of child safety be given due consideration in the process for identifying candidates and naming bishops.”

The Vatican also said a recommendation to establish a local Tribunal to handle sexual abuse cases – currently handled in Rome at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – “is under examination.”

“However, a number of questions around the present proposal need to be carefully considered. For example, given the extension of the Church throughout the world and the very different conditions that exist from country to country, the availability of resources for the establishment of penal tribunals and the presence of adequately prepared personnel to staff such tribunals would have to be assessed,” the Vatican said.

Although the Holy See said it would at least consider most of the recommendations of the Royal Commission, it pushed back on two points: Ending mandatory priestly celibacy and the seal of confession.

“While the Holy See accepts the good will of the Royal Commission in making the present recommendation, it wishes to emphasize the great value of celibacy and to caution against its reduction to a merely practical consideration,” the Vatican statement said.

“Indeed, it must be recalled that the practice of clerical celibacy is of very ancient origin, that it developed in imitation of the style of life chosen by Jesus Christ himself and that it cannot be understood outside the logic of faith and of the choice of a life dedicated to God. It is a question that touches also upon the right to religious freedom, that is to say, the freedom of the Church to organise her internal life in a manner coherent with the principles of the faith and the freedom of individuals to choose this form of life,” it continued.

“With regard to any assertion of a link between celibacy and sexual abuse, a great deal of evidence demonstrates that no direct cause and effect exists. Sadly, the spectre of abuse appears across all sectors and types of society, and is found too in cultures where celibacy is hardly known or practiced,” the statement argued.

Turning to the seal of confession, the Vatican reaffirmed that “a confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.”

“However, even if the priest is bound to scrupulously uphold the seal of the confessional, he certainly may, and indeed in certain cases should, encourage a victim to seek help outside the confessional or, when appropriate, to report an instance of abuse to the authorities,” the document said.

“It should be recalled also that the confessional provides an opportunity – perhaps the only one – for those who have committed sexual abuse to admit to the fact. In that moment the possibility is created for the confessor to counsel and indeed to admonish the penitent, urging him to contrition, amendment of life and the restoration of justice,” the Vatican continued.

“Were it to become the practice, however, for confessors to denounce those who confessed to child sexual abuse, no such penitent would ever approach the sacrament and a precious opportunity for repentance and reform would be lost,” it added.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the president of the Australia bishops’ conference, said the Holy See’s observations, together with the commitment of the local Church, will help create and maintain genuinely safe

“The bishops are keen to support the ongoing public conversation about policies, practices and protocols which will ensure that children and other people at risk are safe in our communities. It’s in this spirit that the observations have been published,” Coleridge said.


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