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PM slams 'sin' of covering up abuse confessions

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Should the confession box be 'inviolable'?

According to Cardinal George Pell of the Roman Catholic Church, confession should always be in confidence, but what if it relates to child abuse?

PT0M0S 620 349

Prime Minister Julia Gillard says using the seal of the Catholic confessional to cover up child abuse is a ‘‘sin of omission’’ because all adults have a duty of care towards children.

Ms Gillard says the terms of reference for the federal royal commission announced on Monday haven’t been set, and nor has the way evidence will be gathered and witnesses questioned.

‘‘That is going to be a matter for the royal commissioners we appoint,’’ she told reporters in Brisbane on Wednesday.

She said all parties including institutions and victims would be consulted carefully on the terms of reference.

When asked if the commission should examine the Catholic Church’s seal of the confessional, the prime minister agreed that it wasn’t good enough that some adults had been ‘‘averting their eyes’’ from the problem of child abuse.

‘‘Adults have got a duty of care towards children,’’ Ms Gillard said.‘‘It’s not good enough for people to engage in sin of omission and not act when a child is at risk.’’

Senior federal Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne has declared that priests should report child sex abuse crimes revealed in the confessional to police.

On Wednesday, Mr Pyne - who is a practising Catholic - said that as a member of Parliament, it would be wrong of him to advise citizens not to report crimes, particularly something as serious as child abuse.

''If a priest, or anyone else, is aware of the sexual abuse of children that is going on, I think there is an obligation on them to report it to the appropriate authorities,'' he told ABC Radio.

On Tuesday, in the wake of Prime Minister Julia Gillard's announcement of a royal commission on child abuse, Cardinal George Pell said that the seal of confession was ''inviolable''.

Cardinal Pell said that if a priest knew what would be confessed prior to the confession, then they should refuse to hear it.

Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said on Wednesday that it was important that she did not have a position on particular issues that were going before the commission.

"We really want the commissioners appointed to be able to explore every issue that they feel they need to," she told ABC TV.

But she also said that the commission needed to look at institutional barriers to reporting child sexual abuse, noting that it was a crime.

"I think the whole community finds that idea [that priests would not report abuse] really abhorrent and we've been through these debates for mandatory reporting for doctors, teachers, for others that [are] meant to be in close relationships and nevertheless have been required to make reports, so I think we really need to look carefully, there aren't a different set of rules that apply."

Ms Roxon added that it wasn't just priests who didn't report but other adults in other school or institutional communities. "A lot of people knew and somehow the system still failed those children," she said.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said that everyone has to obey the law when it comes to reporting child sex abuse, including priests.

"There are various requirements on people if they become aware of sexual offences against children," he told reporters in Brisbane on Wednesday.

"Those legal requirements must be adhered to."

In Australia, mandatory reporting requirements differ between states and territories. For example, in South Australia, the confessional is exempt from mandatory reporting. In the Northern Territory, "any person with reasonable grounds" must report.

Under the NSW Crimes Act, a person must disclose knowledge of a sexual assault or risk being charged with concealing a serious indictable offence, but priests are one of a small class of occupations that cannot be prosecuted unless the Attorney-General consents.

On ABC Radio, Ms Roxon cautioned that the royal commission would take "years, not weeks or months".

Ms Roxon said that when the terms of reference were set later this year, there should be "proper report-back", so the public could be updated along the way.

Cabinet Minister Bill Shorten has said the royal commission must address the controversial issue of whether priests should be legally compelled to report evidence of abuse they hear in the confessional.

Mr Shorten, who strongly urges a general system of mandatory reporting, said: ''What immunity can you claim when it comes to the safety and protection of little children?

''When it comes to the abuse of children, that privilege, if it ever had validity, is well and truly exhausted.''

New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell, a Catholic, has also questioned confessional privilege. He said he struggled to understand how, ''[If] a priest confesses to another priest that he has been involved in paedophile activities, that that information should not be brought to police.''

Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu supported mandatory reporting but said there had been ''a separate issue'' about the confessional. This would be looked at by the Victorian inquiry into abuse and he expected it would be raised through the commission.

Mr Shorten said Victoria police supported mandatory reporting and state law should be changed to bring it in. Police should not be obstructed by institutions failing to report matters, and it was important institutions understood that internal processes were no substitute for police investigation.

Mr Shorten said his own strong views had been influenced by the fact his family had for years attended the Sacred Heart parish in Oakleigh, served by notorious paedophile priest Kevin O'Donnell. He said thousands of Australians had been victims of sexual abuse, ''and too many haven't received a real apology, atonement or recompense''.

■The Prime Minister's Department said those wanting their details passed on to the commission's secretariat could phone 1800 099 340.

with Josephine Tovey, AAP

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223 comments

  • From my limited experience when I was young you could go into the confessional & state any sins (no matter how bad) & "bingo" .....you were forgiven. I can't see how a religeous law can override the laws of the land just because of some ancient beliefs.

    Commenter
    Bazza
    Date and time
    November 14, 2012, 10:29AM
    • Bazza,

      A few readers of this site will probably be amused to read this, but I am having a bit of a hard time deciding what to think about this.

      On one hand, I agree that no institution, not even the the Catholic Church, should be above the law. So, from that point of view, I agree that the priviledge enjoyed by the church should be removed.

      But, on the other hand, I can see that such a move is likely to be of limitied value. After all, is an offender still going to confess to child abuse if he or she knows that this information would be passed on to police?

      There may be a valid argument that the absolute confidentiality of the confessional gives the Church an opportunity to identify problems early and take action. The only problem with this argument is that there is very little, if any, evidence that this has been happening and, in any case, it does not appear to have worked.

      But then I had a thought: Isn't this exactly what the Royal Commission if for? To expose the problem and make recommendations on how to deal with it?

      So, on balance, I agree with the proposition that priests be placed under the same mandatory reporting obligations as apply to doctors, school teachers and social workers. But I do suspect that it will be of limited value.

      I think that Mr Pyne and Mr O'Farrell are being a bit irresponsible in attempting to pre-empt the findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission. I know that there is a great feeling of urgency at the moment and plenty of political points to be scored by jumping onto the bandwagon. But sometimes getting it right is more important than doing it quickly.

      Commenter
      v
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 11:11AM
    • Agreed.
      And how can you deny other religions, say Islam, Mormonism etc, to have their special law while allowing it for Catholics?!

      Commenter
      Angantyr
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 11:28AM
    • It's because it is separate to the law of the land. Confession is a sacrament and as such is in the spiritual not the temporal realm.

      A pagan society which is now what modern Australia has become cannot understand this concept because all things are temporal under this regime.

      You need to understand the nature of mortal sin and the dire consequences this has.

      In Catholic and Orthodox theology, if a person were to die in a state of mortal sin and had not repented then, (subject of course to the unfathomable mercy of God) that person would, in all likelihood, be headed one way and that is to hell for eternity. If you consider that this life is a test and we will all be judged one day by how we have lived it in conscience, then this is as serious as it gets. This consequence by the way applies to all people - even if you do not believe in God at all it's just that the ancient churches take it very seriously because it is serious.

      Secular society does not impose true life sentences for even the most heinous of crimes. However, if such a murderer, rapist, adulterer, thief or other breaker of the 10 commandments - including a paedophile - believed that a priest would divulge the sin he/she had committed, they might never seek to confess this and obtain absolution.

      If they died alienated from God in this sense, the consequences are as bad as they can be - and permanent.

      Commenter
      Aristotle's Window Cleaner
      Location
      West End
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 11:33AM
    • v. I don't think that obvious legal responses to Child Abuse need to wait until the outcome of the Commission. If we know of a crime against a child we should bring the perpetrator to justice, no matter what their status or culture. All that Pyne and Shorten are doing is stating the bleeding obvious about getting rid of a farcical bit of self-protection [the Confessional]that has been allowed to exist for far too long.
      I also believe that the evidence against the church in particular is so strong that all but the worshoipping aspects of the organisation should be removed from the control of the clergy and placed in the hands of a community management structure until the Royal Commission completes its findings. This is not about whether the Church has commited and covered up criminal activity - it only about the extent of the criminal behaviour and what we need to do about it.

      Commenter
      Christopher
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 11:40AM
    • Why does a person (priest or lay catholic) go to Confession?
      Presumably they believe that if they do not confess their sin, God will punish them by not letting them into Heaven. They confess to save their immortal souls. An eternity locked out of Heaven (or in the fires of Hell) must be much worse than five years in an Australian jail. So the priest who hears the Confession is doing the sinner a favour by reporting him/her to the police and "leading the sinner out of temptation".

      Or do the evil priests go to Confession so that, with absolution, they feel free to continue sinning? To get a licence to sin for another week.

      Now, for non-Catholics, such as myself, this is risible. But Catholics must believe in absolution of sin.

      What about if the priest hearing the Confession is also a pedophile and gets his kicks from hearing others talk about their exploits? Perhaps there should be the equivalent of a "third umpire" wherein all confessions are recorded and submitted to a higher power, such as Pell, for adjudication on whether police intervention is necessary.

      Commenter
      Lucy (original)
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 11:43AM
    • Mr Window Cleaner

      Magic stories aside, what has happenbed by keeping these crimes confidential is that the offender re-offends and that the victims go without any help and were frequently pressured to keep quiet. It is intolerable, unjust and inhuman.

      You say they won't then confess then and suffer worse in some puttative after life. GOOD if only it were true.
      However mandatory reporting is about more than just confessions, it is about any knowledge of the crime. And from what Pell said, if he knows enough to refuse to hear a confession the he damn well knows enough to report to the police. No breach of a confessional ritual required.

      Commenter
      Mathew
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 11:45AM
    • @ Aristotle's Window Cleaner,

      "if such a murderer, rapist, adulterer, thief or other breaker of the 10 commandments - including a paedophile - believed that a priest would divulge the sin he/she had committed, they might never seek to confess this and obtain absolution"

      You write as though that's a bad thing. Seriously, what justice is there for a victim of abuse to believe that because their abuser confessed his or her crimes in the confessional, they are therefore absolved of all wrongdoing? Absolution or punishment after mortal death is up to God alone, but that in no way should save the abuser from being made to answer for their crimes in this life.

      The confessional should never be considered above the law of the land, regardless of what you believe.

      Commenter
      blu
      Location
      Geelong
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 11:49AM
    • Christopher,

      "All that Pyne and Shorten are doing is stating the bleeding obvious about getting rid of a farcical bit of self-protection [the Confessional]that has been allowed to exist for far too long."

      I really don't think that either Mr Pyne or Mr Shorten are seriously suggesting that the state should intervene to ban the Confessional and, if this is what they are proposing, they are way out of line.

      I agree that there should be no impediment to the prosecution of offenders who are identified during the Commission and I see no reason why police would have to wait until the Commission hands down its findings. As a matter of fact, it is unlikely that the eventual findings of the Commission will contain recommendations on prosecuting individual citizens, as it is far more likely to concentrate on recommending measures to fix the problem rather than simply punishing offenders.

      The question of whether or not the state would be justified in subjecting priests to the same legal reporting obligations on matters of child abuse as doctors, social workers, teachers and other professions, is one for the Royal Commission. My own personal belief is that this protection should be removed simply because no institution within society should hold itself above the laws of that society. But Pyne and others ahve been putting forward this idea as a "solution" to the problem of institutional child abuse and this IS an irresponsible pre-empting of the Royal Commission.

      But I suppose it all depends on whether you want to fix the problem or simply bask in the false impression that somethign is being done. I'd prefer to see an end to intitutional abuse, so I want the Commission to be free to do its work without people pre-empting its findings.

      Commenter
      v
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 12:01PM
    • My problem being an atheist is that all these ancient laws & rituals should have been knocked on the head years ago.

      Commenter
      Bazza
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 12:05PM

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