Holy See Upholds Confessional Seal in Response to Australian Royal Commission
Attorneys-general in Australia’s federal and state governments agreed in November 2019 on reporting standards that would require priests to break the sacramental seal or violate Australia’s mandatory abuse reporting rules.
MELBOURNE, Australia — The Australian bishops have provided the federal government with the Holy See’s observations on 12 recommendations of a 2017 report on child sex abuse in the country's institutions.
In response to a recommendation regarding the seal of confession and absolution, the Holy See reiterated the inviolability of the seal and that absolution cannot be conditioned on future actions in the external forum.
“The Holy See affirms once more its resolute determination to confront and eradicate the abuse of minors and vulnerable persons, wherever it may occur in the Church,” read the Holy See's observations, which were enclosed in a letter of Feb. 26.
The Holy See’s observations were conveyed to the Australian bishops’ conference, which in turn sent them to the Attorney-General for Australia, and referred to in a Sept. 4 statement from the conference.
“The Pope has sought to promote reform and vigilance at all levels within the Church and to encourage the efforts of local Churches in the same direction. That commitment has led to the adoption … of a wide range of measures, designed to ensure a proper response to such cases, including at the canonical level, as well as encouraging cooperation with civil authorities,” the observations note.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse had recommended that it be clarified whether “information received from a child during the sacrament of reconciliation that they have been sexually abused is covered by the seal of confession,” and “if a person confesses during the sacrament of reconciliation to perpetrating child sexual abuse, absolution can and should be withheld until they report themselves to civil authorities.”
The Holy See responded that the June 29, 2019 note of the Apostolic Penitentiary on the internal forum, which reaffirmed the inviolability of the seal of confession, “furnished useful indications for arriving at a considered response to the questions raised.”
It was observed that the confessional seal includes all the sins known from the confession, both of the penitent and others.
The Holy See added that this is the “long-standing and constant teaching of the Church on the inviolability of the sacramental seal, as something demanded by the nature of the sacrament itself and thus as deriving from Divine Law.”
It added that the confessor “certainly may, and indeed in certain cases should, encourage a victim to seek help outside the confessional or, when appropriate, to report an instance of abuse to the authorities.”
With regard to absolution, the Holy See cited canon law, noting that “the confessor must determine that the faithful who confess their sins are truly sorry for them and that they have a purpose of amendment. Since repentance is, in fact, at the heart of this sacrament, absolution can be withheld only if the confessor concludes that the penitent lacks the necessary contrition. Absolution then, cannot be made conditional on future actions in the external forum.”
It added that “the confessional provides an opportunity- perhaps the only one - for those who have committed sexual abuse to admit to the fact. In that moment the possibility is created for the confessor to counsel and indeed to admonish the penitent, urging him to contrition, amendment of life and the restoration of justice. Were it to become the practice, however, for confessors to denounce those who confessed to child sexual abuse, no such penitent would ever approach the sacrament and a precious opportunity for repentance and reform would be lost.”
The Holy See also said, “it is of paramount importance that formation programmes for confessors include a detailed analysis of Church law, including the ‘Note’ of the Apostolic Penitentiary, together with practical examples to instruct priests concerning difficult questions and situations that may arise. These may include, for example, principles for the kind of dialogue a confessor should have with a young person who has been abused or appears vulnerable to abuse, as well as with anyone who confesses to having abused a minor.”
Attorneys-general in Australia’s federal and state governments agreed in November 2019 on reporting standards that would require priests to break the sacramental seal or violate Australia’s mandatory abuse reporting rules. Further, priests would not be able to use the defense of privileged communications in the confessional seal to avoid giving evidence against a third party in criminal or civil proceedings. Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory had already adopted laws forcing priests to violate the confessional seal, while New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia had upheld it.
Considering other recommendations made by the royal commission, the Holy See agreed “that the question of child safety be given due consideration in the process” of appointing bishops, and noted that some suggestions had been made in recent years, particularly through the 2019 motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi.
Among the recommendations was a retrospective repeal of the statute of limitations on the prosecution of canonical crimes of child sex abuse. The Holy See noted that the statute of limitations has been increased, and that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith can derogate from it on a case-by-case basis.
It added, however, that “that the institution of prescription is of ancient origin, in both canonical and civil systems. Its outright abolition could, in fact, result in difficulties for the proper administration of justice since the fallibility of memory with the passage of time and the lack of proofs concerning events from the distant past make it difficult to reach the level of certainty required in criminal proceedings.”
The Holy See observed that “the sexual abuse of minors is a crime in both civil and canon law. The civil and criminal responsibility of individuals who perpetrate that crime is a matter for the laws of the State where the crime is committed. Focusing on the ecclesial aspect of the crime, Canon Law seeks to punish the wrongdoer for the grievous harm he has caused and to protect the faithful from further damage. At the same time, it cannot be indifferent to the sinner's conversion, since it has as a fundamental goal the salvation of souls.”
It also recalled the importance of the presumption of innocence and the need for a judge to have moral certainty in arriving at a decision.
Another recommendation rejected by the Holy See was making celibacy voluntary for diocesan clergy.
The Holy See said that “it wishes to emphasize the great value of celibacy and to caution against its reduction to a merely practical consideration. Indeed, it must be recalled that the practice of clerical celibacy is of very ancient origin, that it developed in imitation of the style of life chosen by Jesus Christ himself and that it cannot be understood outside the logic of faith and of the choice of a life dedicated to God. It is a question that touches also upon the right to religious freedom, that is to say, the freedom of the Church to organise her internal life in a manner coherent with the principles of the faith and the freedom of individuals to choose this form of life.”
“With regard to any assertion of a link between celibacy and sexual abuse, a great deal of evidence demonstrates that no direct cause and effect exists. Sadly, the spectre of abuse appears across all sectors and types of society, and is found too in cultures where celibacy is hardly known or practiced,” the observations noted.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, president of the Australian bishops’ conference, commented that “the bishops are keen to support the ongoing public conversation about policies, practices and protocols which will ensure that children and other people at risk are safe in our communities. It’s in this spirit that the observations have been published.”
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, a five-year Australian government inquiry, concluded in 2017 with more than 100 recommendations.