Don’t Use the Sexual Abuse Scandal to Attack Confession

The new Australian law is not so much a way of protecting children from abuse as an assault upon the Church

(photo: YouTube)

Earlier this summer, the Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in Canberra passed new laws forcing Catholic priests to break the seal of Confession. 

All three political parties in the ACT Legislative Assembly supported the bill to extend a mandatory reporting scheme that would cover churches and include the confessional. The new laws require religious organizations to report to the ACT Ombudsman allegations, offenses, or convictions related to children that have been divulged in Confession, within 30 days so that an investigation can be launched. Needless to say, there are fears that these new laws will be studied by the other States and Territory that make up the Commonwealth of Australia, bringing with it the alarming possibility of their extension nationwide. 

Critics of the laws have been quick to claim that the new law is not so much a way of protecting children from abuse as an assault upon the Church. As Archbishop Christopher Prowse of Canberra and Goulburn pointed out: "The government threatens religious freedom by appointing itself an expert on religious practices and by attempting to change the sacrament of Confession while delivering no improvement in the safety of children." 

So this law will be of no use to those whom it is seeking to protect and, yet, manages to criminalize those who are doing nothing illegal – in Australia a priest hearing Confession is not yet a crime. 

Reading the various press reports, therefore, it is unclear as to what this legislative move will achieve. For a start, no priest will break the seal of Confession. First it would mean mortal sin on his part; secondly, he would be excommunicated as a result; and thirdly, there would never again be a queue at his confessional.

This is a pointless law aimed not at the perpetrators of crimes but at priests who have been deemed to have no rights now in this matter, even if they have done nothing wrong. 

Before enacting this piece of legislation the ACT lawmakers should have watched Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953). It would have made all too clear the likely scenario ahead. At the drama’s centre there is a priest — played by Montgomery Cliff — suspected of having committed a murder. He is willing to die rather than break the seal of Confession and, thereby, reveal the true murderer. It is a great tale, told with the usual aplomb by the Master of Suspense, himself a Catholic. There is more to it though.

Throughout the film there is something noble in the priest’s stubborn refusal to break the seal of Confessional even if the personal cost to him is immense. But there is more still. This is only a Hollywood film, but it captures something of the essence of the priesthood on screen. As Catholics know, when in the confessional the priest is acting in persona Christi. Catholics do not confess to a man but to God, and beg His Divine Mercy. The priest is a witness, a guarantor if you like, to what is taking place and that forgiveness for our sins is real, not a figment of our imaginations. I Confess catches something of the gravity of this. So grave in fact that nothing on earth could move the priest character to break that seal and what it represents. Hollywood films such as I Confess may have romanticized aspects of the priesthood but, oddly, other parts, the essentials, they communicated effectively and memorably. 

It is a shame a copy of I Confess is not to be had in Canberra or any other part of the Australian Capital Territory. Believing oneself to be right at all times, as is the case with some politicians, dampens the needs to check the impact of one’s actions on others, as well as, seemingly, absolving some, such as ACT politicians, from ever thinking themselves accountable – to anyone. This mindset is in contrast to the Catholic electors in Canberra, and elsewhere, who queue up at confessionals to confirm what the rest of us already know that we are all sinners full of self-delusion, ever in need of absolution. 

This new ACT law is a salvo aimed at religious freedom; it is, one, in particular, directed at Catholics. 

It is quite clear to any Catholic who has ever been to Confession that that sacrament does what it says on the tin: it removes sin, and its hangers-on, shame and guilt. Furthermore, it gives the graces needed to continue the fight anew, to enter the fray afresh, more often than not, just allows us to keep going. Without it, the lukewarm way beckons, followed by the slow undulating ever-widening path to a warmer place than even the Australian Capital Territory.