Monday, November 21, 2022

The attack on the Seal of Confession

My latest in The Critic defends the secrecy of the confessional against the proposal by the Independent Inquiry in Child Sexual Abuse that priests be legally obliged to break the seal of confession whether the contents of a confession raised safeguarding concerns: what level of concern this would be is left unclear.

There are so many things wrong with this that it is difficult to know where to start, and the Report makes no effort to engage with the issues specific to confession which make this particularly problematic. My article refers to the common argument that useful information is rarely imparted in confession, and that an obligation to break the seal would lay priests open to blackmail and prosecution with no means of defence. It also points out the hypocrisy of the Inquiry in making an exception to its demand that confidentiality be broken for the sake of safeguarding, when it concerns under-age sexual activity: despite the well-documented fact that this is commonly a context for abuse.

However, there is another point which needs to be made. This is that the point of the seal is not to protect the priest, but the penitent, the person making the confession. If the content of abused young people's  sacramental confessions were repeated in court, this would be a violation of their trust, an abuse of them. This is hardly a step towards protecting them, but the institutionalisation of their being treated as though they had neither rights nor agency.

My article it begins:

The Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published in October recommends ‘mandatory reporting’ of child sexual abuse, explicitly including under this requirement the breaking of the seal of the confession: that is, revealing things disclosed during the Sacrament of Penance, something considered so serious for Catholic priests that it leads to automatic excommunication. The Report’s recommendation follows similar moves in parts of Australia: the states of Victoria and Western Australia have passed laws seeking to oblige priests to disclose the content of confessions if these include allegations of child sexual abuse.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that the IICSA, like the Australian Royal Commission before it, and Australian state legislators, are more concerned with striking a pose than with the practicalities of child safeguarding. Their highlighting of the seal confession, implicated in precisely zero cases of child sexual abuse around the world, is reminiscent of their grandstanding demands, during their gathering of evidence, to see persons and documents from the Holy See, without bothering with official channels.

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