By Fr Nicholas Pearce
Over the weeks ahead, our state politicians will be debating legislation that seeks to extend the obligation of mandatory reporting to Ministers of Religion. This change has already occurred in other states and is something that the Church in Melbourne welcomes and has herself been calling for since the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry and the Royal Commission.
I do not need a law to tell me what my moral obligation is. As a Christian, as a man, as an uncle and brother and as a priest, the very thought of the abuse of children repulses me. That an individual would set out to harm a child, be it physically, emotionally or sexually is abhorrent. I do not need the government to tell me that if faced with the knowledge of these crimes, the only response is to report them to the authorities to ensure that children are protected, and that perpetrators are punished to the full extent of the law.
But the fact is that this is not all that this law intends to do. Under the guise of protecting children, our government is seeking to infringe on one of our most sacred Rites. For the first time in this state, the government is seeking to remove the protection offered to her citizens when making a religious Confession. This right is something which until recently has been a respected right, not only of citizens of this country, but of all western jurisdictions. It is essential that, as Catholics, we are clear on what is occurring here, and on the effect, it will have on our rights as citizens to exercise our right to practise our faith, without fear or favour. It is also clear at this point that there is no reliable evidence to suggest that removing the seal of the confessional will make the children of Victoria any safer.
The United States Department of Justice points out that there are five common psychological defence patterns in paedophiles: denial, minimisation, justification, fabrication (e.g. activities were researched for a scholarly project), and attack (e.g. character attacks on the child) (Lanning KV, 2001). The only way a perpetrator can commit crimes that make the rest of us sick to the stomach is that they are able through a variety of means to convince themselves that what they are doing is not wrong. If this is the case, we can be confident that they are not, in turn, bringing these matters to the confessional. We teach our children from their youngest years that the journey to the confessional begins long before they enter that little room. The first movement must be that one can admit to themselves that what they have done is wrong. Our prisons are full to this day with paedophiles who will go to their grave convinced that their heinous crimes did not harm.
Let us for a moment consider the scenario, that after years of abusing, a perpetrator comes to a moment of realisation, of contrition, and does return to the Sacrament to confess their sins. It may just be because of the seal of the confessional, and the anonymity provided, that he is able to confess his crimes for the first time. It is in this circumstance, like in so many that we as priests encounter in the confessional with those who are genuinely contrite, that we guide the penitent to a reform of life that so often includes ensuring appropriate restitution for any harmed parties.
The Jesuit priest and lawyer, Fr Frank Brennan SJ, has written on this matter stating that “the abolition of the legal protection of the seal of the confessional will not render one child safer and might just take away the occasional opportunity for an offender to come forward seeking God's forgiveness with a firm purpose of amendment, including the desire to turn himself in” (Brennan, 2018). If there is no seal, no anonymity, then there would be no-one coming forward at all, as this would be, as it were, just like handing oneself directly to the police.
This also applies in the case of a child who may use the Sacrament of Confession (again, because of the anonymity and seal) to reveal for the first time that he or she is the victim of abuse. Again, it is in this forum that we, as priests, not as mere dispensers of absolution but well-trained pastoral professionals, may guide the child and assist them to bring this important information to another adult in their life in order to receive the care and protection that they need. Yet if we forcibly remove people's right to confess, and their confidence in the seal, then we remove too these possibilities of pastoral encounter. The Seal of the Confessional has the power, if only in a few cases, to bring protection and care to victims, and perpetrators to justice - but without it, these pastoral encounters will never occur.
I recently had the opportunity to meet with our local member, Mr Matt Fregon MP, and discuss my concerns. Among these was the fact that the Government is seeking to extend mandatory reporting to include ministers of religion, while at the same time, lawyers or journalists are to remain exempt. Under the law as it stands, a perpetrators discussions with his lawyer remain inadmissible in court, even if he is discussing crimes that he has committed against children.
Not only is the lawyer not mandated to report these discussion to anyone else, he is prohibited. I suggested to Mr Fregon that I would suspect that there are many more lawyers walking around Victoria today with knowledge of historical child abuse than priests, and that it seems incongruous that the Government is not addressing this at the same time. We must, as Catholics, see this change in law as something that it is, a deliberate infringement on one of the fundamental tenants of our Catholic faith, and of our right to practise it freely as citizens.
Let there be no confusion, I will go to my grave protecting the innocence of children and ensuring that this Parish and this Church that I love with all my heart is a place of safety and protection for children and vulnerable adults and that perpetrators are brought to justice, and punished to the full extent of the law. It is my commitment, and the commitment of every priest I know, that the scourge and horror of abuse that has wracked our Church will never be revisited upon us. But let there be no confusion also, that I will go to my grave, or to prison if it be so determined, defending your right as Catholics to confess your sins to God alone and to receive his absolution and Mercy in the Sacrament of Confession.
Brennan, F. Circumscribing the seal of the confessional. Eureka Street. (2018) Retrieved online: https://www.eurekastreet.com.a...
Lanning KV. Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis. 4th ed. Alexandria, Va: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children; 2001.