The royal commission in Australia charged by the government with investigating how institutions (religious, federal and state governments) have responded to child sex abuse allegations has, after five years issued a 17-volume report containing 400 recommendations, of which 189 are new. Such commissions usually issue fairly mild recommendations but these were quite sweeping. Naturally, the report looked at the Catholic church, one of the worst perpetrators of child sexual abuse, and suggested two major changes: ending celibacy for priests and requiring priests to report to the authorities anyone who in confessions to priests said that they had abused children.
Here are the recommendations for religious institutions:
- The ministry of churches (not just the Catholic Church) should not be exempt from reporting information discovered in religious confession.
- Any religious organisation with a rite of religious confession should implement a policy that confession for children be conducted in an open space and in a clear line of sight of another adult.
- The Australian Catholic Church should request permission from the Vatican to introduce voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy.
- Candidates for religious ministry should undergo external psychological testing, including psychosexual assessment, to determine their suitability to be in the ministry and to undertake work involving children.
- Any person in religious ministry who is the subject of a complaint of child sexual abuse which is substantiated … or who is convicted of an offence relating to child sexual abuse, should be permanently removed from ministry.
Basically, the report says that churches and priests cannot be trusted to police itself when it comes to child sexual abuse. The practice of confessional silence is particularly pernicious because it gives the perpetrator the relief of having told someone and feeling that they have been cleared in the eyes of their god without any further action. Thus they are free to abuse again.
In the US (I don’t know in Australia), teachers are among those are designated as mandatory reporters in that if we are made aware of abuse, we are mandated to report it to the authorities and can be punished if we don’t. There is no reason why priests should not be under the same obligation.
Of course, the church refuses to consider these changes.
But the archbishop of the archdiocese of Melbourne, Denis Hart, responded by saying the seal of the confessional was “inviolable” and “can’t be broken”. He said if someone confessed to abusing children, he would encourage them to admit to their crimes outside the confessional so that it could be reported to police.
“I would feel terribly conflicted, and I would try even harder to get that person outside confessional, but I cannot break the seal,” he said. “The penalty for any priest breaking the seal is excommunication.”
Hart said the commission “hasn’t damaged the credibility of the church”.
In August, Hart upset many abuse survivors and advocates when he said he would risk going to jail rather than report allegations of child sexual abuse raised during confession. He was responding to a recommendation the commission published earlier this year that called for failure to report child sex abuse in institutions to be made a criminal offence.
Hart reiterated those views on Friday and said that he did not expect canon law to change. He said there was “real value” in celibacy, and did not want laws to be changed.
For the Catholic church, maintaining church traditions and upholding ancient doctrines, and even shielding abusers among its clergy and parishioners, is more important than preventing the sexual abuse of children.