Australia: A bill to force priests to break the Seal of Confession

After I posted the story on a legislative attempt in Ireland to force priests to break the Seal of Confession, I had a few emails suggesting that I was panicking, that such a thing would never happen, that this was an isolated instance of people in anger lashing out, etc…

A reader sent a story from The Courier Mail in Australia.

Nick Xenophon urges government to force priests to report confessions of child abuse
From: AAP
July 21, 2011 7:29PM

THE federal government is being urged to follow the lead of Ireland and force priests to report confessions of child abuse to the authorities.

Ireland has announced it will change the law so that Catholic clerics will be prosecuted if they don’t report crimes disclosed during confession.

It follows outrage there over the long-running cover-up of child sex abuse cases within the Church.

Independent senator Nick Xenophon said Australia should legislate accordingly, and argued it was unacceptable for priests to hide behind religious practice.

“There is no contest when it comes to protecting the innocence of a child or maintaining a religious practice,” he told reporters in Canberra today.

“Why should someone be absolved of their sins … when it comes to child abuse because they’ve got a pat on the back from their priest?”  [What an ignorant and evil thing to say.]

Senator Xenophon introduced a private bill on the same matter when he was a member of the South Australian parliament in 2003, but it wasn’t backed by the big parties.

He said it was time for the government to stop the confessional being abused and denied a suggestion it would only prevent criminals from telling all to their priests.

Mark my words, dear readers.  Times are changing, and I hope you are ready for those changes.

This sort of thing is going to increase in frequency and ferocity.

My fear is that the Catholic identity of so many Catholics has been eroded to the point that they will either a) not understand why these attacks should be resisted or b) not have the will to resist them.

St. John Nepomuk, pray for us.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Biased Media Coverage, Clerical Sexual Abuse of Children, Our Catholic Identity, The future and our choices, The Last Acceptable Prejudice and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to Australia: A bill to force priests to break the Seal of Confession

  1. ies0716 says:

    As scary as this sounds at first glance, it seems like a non-issue in practice. Consider:
    1. All Catholic Churches could go back to behind-the-screen confession if this were to become law, so that a priest wouldn’t know who was confessing.
    2. There is no real means of enforcement, since the only way that the authorities could find out about the confession of abuse is if the abuser told them. Even then, the word of an admitted child abuser would be the sole evidence against the priest, and that wouldn’t be enough for a conviction.

  2. KAS says:

    If devout priests are put into prisons, perhaps there will be a revival of true Christianity there. God will bring good from the bad.

    But I do hope that Catholics have enough Faith left to fight for our Church as we ought to do in all the secular parts of our cultures!

  3. ies0716: You make two good points. But you miss the larger point, I believe.

    That said, your point about using only the grate is helpful, but there is no way that a priest can defend himself against the claim that the penitent told the priest his name.

    But I agree that we should, as soon as possible, return to the practice of confession with the fixed grate.

  4. pfreddys says:

    It just hit me how devilish such a law could be. Such a law would simply bring about an OPEN SEASON ON PRIESTS!!! Because of no else hearing a confession an accusation could be leveled at any priest at any time. The implications are horrifying!!!

  5. disco says:

    The worst thing that could come out of a law like this isn’t the risk of a priest being tried for failing to come forward about a confessed child abuse, but rather that a priest would actually comply.

  6. NDPhys says:

    St. John Nepomucene, patron of the Seal of Confession, pray for us.

  7. traditionalorganist says:

    A good time to watch “I Confess.” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045897/

    It’s a wonderful reminder and consolation.

  8. albinus1 says:

    ieso716:

    I realize that I am repeating comments made on the other thread (about the proposed legislation in Ireland, but:

    1) the government could respond to that by passing a law prohibiting anonymous confession, i.e. *requiring* priests to meet penitents face-to-face. (After all, how many lawyers / therapists / etc. meet with their clients anonymously?)

    2) enforcement could easily be done through entrapment — sending an agent posing as a penitent to confess child abuse, then arresting the priest when he didn’t “report” it. As for the argument that it would be the word of the alleged child abuser (or government agent) against that of the priest, in the current political climate, if a false accusation were lodged against a priest, I would wager that juries would be more likely to take the word of an admitted child abuser over that of a priest.

  9. MJ says:

    All Catholic Churches could go back to behind-the-screen confession if this were to become law, so that a priest wouldn’t know who was confessing.

    Wow…I didn’t know this wasn’t common practice…? I know that you can request (at least at my EF parish) a face-to-face confession with your priest, but I didn’t realize that was the norm…is it nowadays?

    Our parish confessionals are basically like the old “boxes”…priest in the middle, a penitent on either side…screens totally hide the priest and the penitent…

  10. afanco says:

    Would it be licit to have “turn yourself in to the proper church and civil authorities” as a penance?

  11. pfreddys says:

    albinus1 makes an excellent point: government agent goes to “confession” (it would mean nothing to such a government agent that they are committing sacriliege), government agent confesses to be a child molester (it does not even have to be true) and even if there is a grill gives his real name to the priest, priest does not report, priest is arrested.

  12. frjim4321 says:

    Would it be licit to have “turn yourself in to the proper church and civil authorities” as a penance?

    No, I don’t think so. A penance should be do-able and should not be made a condition for absolution. [You are right.]

    That having been said, genuine contrition is necessary. It would be hard to argue for genuine contrition if the perpetrator was not willing to make amends to his victim; thus it is conceivable that a person who is not willing to turn himself in is not truly contrite, and thus is not absolved.

  13. Ralph says:

    Father Z,

    I think you are correct in saying that this is just the canery in the coal mine. This is a first sign that the real suppression of the Church in the west is beginning.

    When I read this post, I thought of your earlier post on the priest from Vietnam who serves the Church at the risk of his life. How soon will this situation be repeated in the west? We must prepare ourselves and our children for the worst.

  14. Mundabor says:

    So,
    an enemy of the Church goes into the confessional with an Ipod on “recording” in his trousers.
    He accuses himself of child rape.
    The priests doesn’t go to the police.
    The man does, gives the recording to the police, if the priest hasn’t denounced the man he is under investigation.
    Then it will be – de facto if not de iure – to the priest to persuade the prosecutors that he didn;t have any concrete possibility of knowing to the man was.

    —-

    Next stage for this madmen could also be to oblige people on the confessional to identify themselves. Nowadays nothing seems absurd anymore.

    Mundabor

  15. digdigby says:

    Xenophon? NICK Xenophon? Is that ‘Old Nick’? Are the other sponsors Senators Belphegor and Oriax?

  16. Augustin57 says:

    I believe that we in the Church will be persecuted before it’s all said and done. We will be the equivalent of the Jews in Nazi Germany, except that the scale of the persecution will be far greater. Many will have the opportunity to become martyrs for the faith! Are we ready? I pray we are!

  17. Do the same people who support violating the sacramental seal in order to “protect the innocence of children” also support sex ed. in the schools? Gay adoption? Abortion on demand?

  18. Young Canadian RC Male says:

    Seems like we’re at the end of days. Fr. is right the Devil is abound (though why would he ramp up efforts 2000 years after and not anytime soon?). Many people think the great chastizement is coming upon us based on readings of the Saints and Catholic mystics and popes and such. Perhaps we should be building bunkers and stockpiling supplies and munitions and going on the run. Seriously I’ve been worried for a bit about this in th eback of my head that faithwize I prepared for myself four 3″ binders chock full of http://www.catholic.com This Rock articles, catechism, Bible passages, Catechism etc. and many printed documents from the Vatican as well as buying some sound Catholic books in case I gotta go on the run.

  19. pfreddys says:

    Sorry for my excessive commenting on this…it really is bothering me.
    Note that other fiduciary relationships are not being forced to report pedophiles. If this requirement was expected of doctors and lawyers then there would be outrage; but since this legislation only regards Catholic priests well I guess then the world considers it ok.
    Also, all you Aussies out there have to target this Senator Xenophon to make sure he doesn’t get reelected. I can’t see how such a person who spews such vileness would be elected in the first place; unless he’s from Australia’s equivalent to San Francisco.

  20. Clinton says:

    I will believe that this Senator is serious about his legislation being all about the children
    and not about his own bigotry if he also extends it to cover lawyer-client privilege. Until
    then, I think it’s safe to assume that the man is playing to the prejudices of anti-Catholics
    merely to score cheap political points.

  21. Ygnacia says:

    Mark my words, dear readers. Times are changing, and I hope you are ready for those changes.

    I am not ready for these changes, this daily chipping away at our Church. I don’t know how I would be able to be ready, but I will move forward with perseverance and hope and faith nonetheless.

  22. irishgirl says:

    My God-this is getting really bad!
    All I can say is, ‘Please, Lord, come…come quickly….come soon…’

  23. rfox2 says:

    “Why should someone be absolved of their sins … when it comes to child abuse because they’ve got a pat on the back from their priest?”

    This sounds like it comes right out of the mouth of the Devil himself. No one, unless they are insane or overcome with malice, would want to see children abused. But, it is rank evil to suggest that sins should not be forgiven.

  24. Father G says:

    @ NDPhys
    Let us also ask the intercession of Saint Mateo Correa Magallanes, one of the 25 Mexican martyrs canonized by Blessed John Paul II, who was killed for refusing to break the seal of confession as well.

  25. Dr. Eric says:

    Why are we surprised? Ever since Henry VIII, the Anglophone world has always been Anti-Catholic. Just because the United States has had CINOs for President, Vice-President, Speaker of the House and in the Senate doesn’t mean that this country and other English speaking countries are going to buddy up with Catholics who are faithful to The Faith.

    The recent EWTN program about the martyrdom of Fr. James Coyle in Birmingham, AL (ironically enough, the HQ of EWTN) shows the true nature of the USA.

    Notice that these kinds of laws aren’t coming out of South America.

  26. benedetta says:

    “To protect the innocence of children” I agree with Miss Anita Moore, O.P., and when it comes to schools and the need to prioritize the protection of the innocence of children, much more will be needed. Much more actually.

    I agree that it sounds ridiculous, indicates complete lack of understanding of the sacraments, and is out of touch with reality, and that if the Church had to take defensive measures to protect the sacrament if some legislation such as this were to pass, that could occur. But what is breathtaking and startling is that politicians and those working in government could presume to regulate the sacraments of the Catholic Church and thus constrain the people’s civil liberties, human rights, freedom of worship, basic religious freedom, without any explanation, in a supposed democratic state. And so now we are down two English speaking countries. It is very disturbing and it is an iron fist, a sword, and using platitudes about protecting “children” as smokescreen, attacking the core of the Church. If there really is care about “the children” then a lot of very different things would happen and be happening in terms of secular culture and politics.

  27. Maria says:

    Well, I was just thinking how it could be if an offender wanted to go to confession and get his life straight with God under these proposed conditions.
    Simply put, they will not go and get any help, and would be more vulnerable as outcasts, and just carry on with their disordered lifestyles with nowhere to turn for help.
    As things are at present, a Priest who hears these confessions is able to talk to the person and get them to confess to the authorites anyway if they are sincere, and/or get proper counselling and help via a Priest,but in a manner that God desires; with free will and full understanding of his/her situation. Without threat, without bullying.

    I firmly believe that God wants a repentant heart and not a person who has no option but to receive their ‘just’ punishment because they have been caught or found out.

    It eh law does change, then I suppose an offender could have an appointment with a Priest and discuss the issues in depth, then go to Confession and confess impure thoughts and actions of which they are ashamed. The Prist would know what he is dealing with anyway.

    Mind you, if women become Priests, then that will be the end of our troubles anyway as they will be able to multitask! (sorry about the sarcasm) – I suppose my point here is, – where will it all end?

  28. Thomas in MD says:

    It seems Mr. Xenophon needs to take a personal anabasis out of the dangerous and hate-filled landscape in which he is currently wandering.

  29. MichaelJ says:

    It appears that all of the Australian Senators’ home pages are down
    (see http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/senators/homepages/index.asp).
    as well as Senator Xenophon’s (http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/senators/homepages/senators.asp?id=8iv).

    I tried to get confirmation that he did, in fact, introduce or was thinking of introducing this legislation. Perhaps others will have more luck, or, if so inclined, will want to call him directly at 02/6277 3552 for confirmation of the news reports.

  30. PostCatholic says:

    Please answer that question directly:

    Why should Catholics be able to admit to destroying a childhood (a life!) to their clergy and then be exempt in a peculiar way from due process of law, when a similar admission by any other religionist (or atheist) to any other clergy (or profession) might trigger reasonable reporting requirements?

    It would be really helpful and elucidating to see your argument, because then perhaps protected speech can be more easily defended. I’m not hostile to the seal of confession; I think it’s a noble and virtuous concept and one that could have more and better analogues outside Catholicism.

  31. Kardinal says:

    PostCatholic,

    The basic reason that we confess at all is religious; we seek forgiveness of our sins. We have no reason to confess the sin to a priest for any other purpose. If the seal of the confessional is violated, there is then a disincentive to confess. In short, the state, by introducing this sort of requirement, is discouraging a religious practice. And that is a clear violation of the establishment clause (In the US) and of religious freedom in general.

  32. SK Bill says:

    PostCatholic:

    The premise behind your question is flawed. Confession and absolution do not exempt a criminal from due process of law. Period.

    If I am not mistaken, Protestant pastors are also supposed to maintain silence about anything and everything that one of their flock tells them in private. I never heard of a Baptist pastor being required to testify to something told to him or her, for example, and the doctor-patient and attorney-client privileges are quite similar in their intent and effect.

    But even if I am mistaken about these, it is still true that confession and absolution do not exempt a criminal from due process of law.

  33. Kardinal says:

    You are correct, SK Bill; all religious communication is privileged at least under American law on a state-by-state basis. It is not exclusive to Catholics.

  34. SK Bill says: If I am not mistaken, Protestant pastors are also supposed to maintain silence about anything and everything that one of their flock tells them in private. I never heard of a Baptist pastor being required to testify to something told to him or her, for example, and the doctor-patient and attorney-client privileges are quite similar in their intent and effect.

    Correct. A communication made in confidence to a clergyman (which is broadly defined to cover Christians and non-Christians) in that clergyman’s professional character as a spiritual adviser is privileged.

    Interestingly, I note a potential loophole in the relevant Rule of Evidence in effect in my state, which provides as follows: “The clergyman at the time of the communication may claim the privilege but only on behalf of the person.”

  35. Brad says:

    This senator’s wackadoo words and thoughts certainly do “sound foreign” to ears friendly to Christ’s Church.

  36. seanl says:

    Reminds me of the title of one of Sinclair Lewis’s novels, It Can’t Happen Here

  37. Jane says:

    Nick is an independent. He does not belong to any particular party. We don’t need this jerk and we don’t need the current Australian government either, which is anti-life and which is headed by an atheist woman, (our first female Australian Prime Minister), who is hell bent on introducing a carbon tax and destroying our economy.) She is a Fabian i.e. commo. I urge Australians to be rid of them and the Greens as well, at the first available election. That is a little too far in the future, so in the meantime pray hard that the government can lose its very slim majority and fall. The economy will sort itself much better if the babies are not aborted.

    It is my understanding that no matter what else a priest does, he will never break the seal of Confession, because a special protection has been afforded to this case.

  38. Pearty says:

    traditionalorganist: I haven’t seen ‘I Confess’. Must do.

    Another good one is “Full Confession”, an earlier film and, alas, not available on DVD. It features a holy young priest, plenty of Latin and a loveable Irish drunk. Needless to say I loved it. TCM have it on their database, but no intention of screening anytime soon from what I know.

    My spiritual directors have warned me of excessive late night TV, but I’m glad I was up to catch this one.

  39. Jason says:

    @postcatholic “Why should Catholics be able to admit to destroying a childhood (a life!) to their clergy and then be exempt in a peculiar way from due process of law, when a similar admission by any other religionist (or atheist) to any other clergy (or profession) might trigger reasonable reporting requirements?

    It would be really helpful and elucidating to see your argument, because then perhaps protected speech can be more easily defended. I’m not hostile to the seal of confession; I think it’s a noble and virtuous concept and one that could have more and better analogues outside Catholicism.”

    Your question reveals a complete lack of understanding of the sacrament, which is neither here nor there. My quibble is with your moniker of “postCatholic” which implies actually having been a Catholic at some point. Your question about the sacrament of Confession indicates that your pre “post Catholic” days were not as Catholic as you think they were.

    It’s a bit silly to proclaim yourself a “postCatholic” if you were never truly Catholic to begin with. I’m not trying to insult you. But your flawed understanding of something so fundamentally Catholic as confession makes the issue rather obvious.

  40. Jason says:

    If I might just add in a general sense:
    None of us are perfectly complete Catholics, our hearts perfectly conformed to the mystical body of Christ which is the Church. But the closer we come as we journey along, the more impossible it becomes to not be Catholic, even in the face of persecution, and even death.
    The whole concept of “postCatholic” is an absurdity.

  41. catholicmidwest says:

    People who abuse children and are really contrite about it should rightly be confessing these things in the jail confessional, you understand. People who have done this and say they are contrite, but who are still running around in public, aren’t too darned contrite, bawling and whining or no. The child is more miserable, trust me.

  42. catholicmidwest says:

    RE the contrition of those who abuse minors but are still running around loose:
    Are they contrite enough for absolution? I am no expert, believe me, but I think the possibility should be looked into and looked into hard. Many people in authority have been really, really soft on this part, and we, as a church, are paying the price for that.

    The abuse of minors is a heinous crime. Why? It ruins lives. It’s not theoretical; it’s not only a moral argument but a physical travesty–an act of violence just as sure as getting hit with a baseball bat.

    It needs to be treated with the proper level of repercussion, and even though there is a lot of threatening, bad-mouthing, suspending and all that going on, and no shortage of politics and other mayhem, I still haven’t seen that this crime is treated with the proper type of seriousness.

  43. PostCatholic says:

    Your question reveals a complete lack of understanding of the sacrament, which is neither here nor there. My quibble is with your moniker of “postCatholic” which implies actually having been a Catholic at some point. Your question about the sacrament of Confession indicates that your pre “post Catholic” days were not as Catholic as you think they were.

    It’s a bit silly to proclaim yourself a “postCatholic” if you were never truly Catholic to begin with. I’m not trying to insult you. But your flawed understanding of something so fundamentally Catholic as confession makes the issue rather obvious.

    Jason: I was born into a Catholic family, I attended Catholic schools, I was confirmed, I was a Catholic seminarian for a time, I was later married in Catholic cathedral during a nuptial Mass. I no longer consider myself Catholic, no longer profess any part of the creed beyond “Became man” and “was crucified, died and was buried.” If I had it to do again, I probably wouldn’t choose the handle “PostCatholic” for this blog, but it was at the time I did it (hastily), it was an attempt to be descriptive of my beliefs and simultaneously not to be offense along the lines of “recovering Catholic” or “ex-Catholic” so often heard. I’m sorry the moniker is offensive to you, it’s not my intent.

    I don’t know how whether my days as a Catholic were “Catholic as [I] think they were.” But I will point out to you that I didn’t ask a question about sacramental economy. I asked a question about legal privilege, which is well answered by Kardinal above.