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WikiLeaks and the secrets of the confessional

Date

Alpha, one of our theistic commentators, prompted this discussion of the atheistic ethicist on confidentiality when he blogged last week:

"Secrets. Everyone has them.
Much has been made by some bloggers of the role of secrecy in the Roman Catholic confessional. In looking at this we need to apply common sense, as well as common practice.
Everyone dislikes a tattletale ... The end result of breaching confidentiality would be a loss of confidence in those professionals whose career is enabling people in greatest need to deal with their problems."

Recently, the whole nature of organisational and individual confidentiality has been recalibrated. We seem to be a less secret society and the values of transparency and openness seem to be triumphing over privacy. When is that good and when is it destructive voyeurism?

For the organisations, the rot set in in the 1970s with freedom of information applying to governments and it has culminated with WikiLeaks. In the WikiLeaks world nothing is sacred and information that may have been stolen is paraded shamelessly.

On the individual level, various professions have claimed the right to secrecy and the courts have respected these claims in the past, so that priests in the confessional, doctors in the surgery, journalists and their sources or spousal secrets were seen as being sacrosanct.

The clear motive for protecting these professionals and couples is that secrecy brings candour and without candour these people may not be able to operate in the best way possible. Information might be kept from advisers who have no fetter on their ability to blab or indeed have an obligation to dob. Yet now this is changing and some of these groups may find that their claims to privilege are under attack.

It might surprise you to know that my first position is that candour is a good thing. Privacy is the midwife of candour. Without the former, the latter will wither. Thus promoting candour in professions and organisations by protecting privacy is ethical. Accordingly, I am predisposed to its protection subject to certain explicit caveats.

Let's start with the professional privilege against disclosure. The law protects the privileges of doctors and lawyers from disclosure. When he was a High Court judge, Michael Kirby observed in 2002 that "professional privilege is an important civil right to be safeguarded by the law. Of course, derogations appropriate to the needs of a democratic society may be contemplated. However, vigilance is required against accidental and unintended erosions of the right." Michael Kirby is never wrong.

But there is one erosion that has evolved over time – the mandatory reporting of child abuse. It is a confusingly different position in every state and territory, one of the joys of a federal structure. Here is a summary. In short, some health professionals (and others such as teachers and social workers) now must forgo client confidentiality if abuse is suspected. I am sure that this leads to less candour and it is a cost I am sure every reader agrees should be paid.

What about the priest and penitent? These conversations too are protected from disclosure. I imagine that initially this rule was made in recognition of the power of the church and the importance of the sacrament of penitence in faith. Secularisation of our world has changed this. I sort of don't mind protection of the priest and penitent conversations, but it does seem outrageous that the list of professionals obliged to mandatorily report child abuse does not include the confessional. That should be rectified.

And what about other privileged relationships, such as journalists' claim to keep schtum over their sources? To extort that information may not only undermine the ability of journalists to investigate but expose some informers to dangers.

Journalists' ethics - that seeming oxymoron - are often observed in the breach (such as AJA Code No.11 – "Respect private grief and personal privacy"). But No.3 requires a journalist to respect a confidential source. I worry about this. Confidential sources could be liars or wrong.

Famously, in 2005 Newsweek was caught in a Koran desecration story which led to riots involving at least 17 deaths. The article stated that an unnamed official had seen a copy of an unreleased US government report confirming the desecration. However, the magazine later retracted parts of the article when the unnamed official changed his story. The confidential story was wrong, people died on the basis of this and the source was protected.

In 2011, New South Wales changed the law on the protection of journalists' sources and so now they can be easily revealed in open court. What was once protected now is much less so. It would be a bit hypocritical of journalists to whine about this for we have profited from Wikileaks.

The WikiLeaks phenomenon has much moral ambiguity about it. It is dealing in information that may have been lost or stolen but not returned unopened. If theft is involved, it must be seen as immoral to some extent. If its disclosures expose informants to the risk of danger and death, it is deplorable.

It will diminish organisational candour and that could have immeasurable impacts for good or evil. On the other hand, it may well expose wrongdoings that may otherwise go undisclosed. The simplistic barracking by WikiLeaks activists fails to take into account the risks to informers, the value of privacy and the important of candour. Whatever the final balance is, it is important to not forget the right to privacy is one that should not be ripped up without consideration.

What WikiLeaks, and ironically the diminution of the protection of journalists' sources, tells us is that the world that protected confidences and secrets is changing. It is less likely that your precious secret will survive exposure by someone who is driven by the righteous claim that all confidences and clandestine discussions have to be exposed.

And so we return to the confessional. I feel that, if the mandatory disclosure rules were extended to the booth,  it should be a private oasis in an increasingly less private world.

Alpha finishes with these words from Jesus, who was clearly was in the pro-WikiLeaks camp:

"The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!" Luke 12:2,3 NLT.

Is the world less secretive? Is privacy old hat?

What information should be protected?

Does WikiLeaks so undermine candour that organisations cannot operate optimally?

Why should theft of information be less culpable than theft of goods?

Would you protect the confessional from spy cameras and disclosure?

Over to you...

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186 comments

  • I think there is something a little naive about the idea that we could stamp out a lot of pedophilia if confessions were not exempted from mandatory reporting. The purpose of allowing exemptions from mandatory reporting is to encourage candour, where that candour is viewed as benefiting society more than the reporting. No doubt there are cases where a crime was confessed and not reported, but to suggest that these will then become solved crimes - and that justice will be done - if the exemption is withdrawn is naive, because it assumes that this situation will continue when the exemption is withdrawn. In practice, the only reason the crimes might be confessed is because they ARE exempt. Removing the exemption will simply dry up the confessions. I have a sneaking suspicion that most criminals who confess a major crime in the confessional are three-quarters of the way to making a legal confession anyway, and I'd certainly expect a priest to encourage that process.

    Commenter
    Martin C
    Location
    Maroubra
    Date and time
    May 07, 2012, 12:11PM
    • Martin C

      "I have a sneaking suspicion that most criminals who confess a major crime in the confessional are three-quarters of the way to making a legal confession anyway, and I'd certainly expect a priest to encourage that process."

      You can not possibly be serious? All historical evidence would point to the totally opposite behaviour from catholic priests. Have you not been paying attention to what any objective observer would see as a decades long concerted effort by catholic clergy to ensure that no legal confessions were ever made in regard to systematic child abuse. The catholic church continues to financially and (im)morally support members of the clergy in fighting pleas of not guilty in charges of child abuse that the average reasonable minded person finds to be obviously guilty.

      The question here is, are the people and organisations, priests, journalists and lawyers, that we grant the privilege of non-disclosure to seen as worthy of the privilege and living up to the responsibility of that privilege? I would answer a resounding no!

      Commenter
      TJP
      Location
      Cambodia
      Date and time
      May 08, 2012, 8:17AM
    • TJP: Did you not read what I actually wrote, or did you simply fail to understand it? I agree with you that the Church systematically covered up the child abuse. But do you have any evidence that this happened in the CONFESSIONAL? All cases I have seen, the perpetrator was uncovered by the victim or by third party discovery, and the church was informed about it through means other than confessions. They then covered it up - illegally. The "privilege of non-disclosure" for the Confessional is the issue, because no such privilege exists for information outside the confessional as far as I am aware. If a priest or any person in the Catholic Church finds out about a pedophile activity in any way outside of the confessional, they are bound by the same laws as the rest of us. The exemption is only for the confessional. My point was that removing that exemption would not improve matters, because the the information the Church was covering up was not coming from the confessional and thus was never exempt: the cover-up was a criminal act under existing law. In other words, forcing the church to reveal what happened in the confessional would not change what was covered up, because I don't think priests were ever confessing to child abuse in the confessional - they weren't confessing it at all.

      Commenter
      Martin C
      Location
      Maroubra
      Date and time
      May 08, 2012, 3:48PM
    • As I posted further down. there was a case in France where a priest confessed to child abuse and it was covered up. When the abuser was finally caught by other means, the confessor was jailed for concealing the crime.

      Commenter
      Long John SIlver
      Date and time
      May 09, 2012, 2:25PM
    • I stand by my assertion that it would be foolish of you to "certainly expect a priest to encourage that process." When all objective evidence to date would indicate that the last thing the catholic clergy want is for the issue of catholic clergy child abuse to be dealt with by the criminal justice system in public.

      You either do not understand the current Victorian mandatory reporting laws or are being facetious when you state "If a priest or any person in the Catholic Church finds out about a paedophile activity in any way outside of the confessional, they are bound by the same laws as the rest of us". The Catholic clergy are exempt from Victorian mandatory reporting laws as they stand currently. I for one think this should change immediately.

      On the question of non-disclosure (not mandatory reporting) I think that we could agree that the perpetrator of child abuse has no rights to protection for any reason. So the questions are: are the victims or the community in some way advantaged by non-disclosure? and; do the individuals and organisations, with the privilege of non-disclosure, need it to do their work? I would say no on both counts. There is also a very good question of whether the "seal of the confessional" is actually enshrined in Victorian law or does merely relied upon community goodwill?

      On the question of "evidence that this happened in the CONFESSIONAL?" Neither you nor I will ever have that evidence one way or the other under the current non-disclosure situation.

      Commenter
      TJP
      Location
      Cambodia
      Date and time
      May 09, 2012, 6:30PM
    • TJP,
      I think Martin C was talking about crimes in general being confessed and being protected. The point being if someone confessed to shoplifting, they wouldn't confess to shoplifting if it meant they ended up being arrested. I really wonder though if people who confess to crimes are 3/4 of the way to confessing. I thought people did it to ease their consciounse (be 'forgiven') rather than out of any tangible guilt.

      Commenter
      Matheus
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 09, 2012, 7:59PM
  • There is no doubt in my mind that we are considerably less private than we used to be. One thing I find interesting is the walls of apartment buildings. In the 70s, they were brick, with small high windows to allow the residents to peer out. In the 80s, they were brick, but with large sunny windows that occasionally allow those outside a glimpse of the residents. Today, apartments have fully glass walls, and unless blinds are drawn, passersby can practically count the freckles on each resident.

    Commenter
    Martin C
    Location
    Maroubra
    Date and time
    May 07, 2012, 12:13PM
    • I have strong opinions on this subject, but I refuse to tell you what they are. You'll have to tap my phone if you want to publish my comments.

      Commenter
      Long John SIlver
      Date and time
      May 07, 2012, 1:26PM
      • LJS

        Re: 'I have strong opinions on this subject, but I refuse to tell you what they are. You'll have to tap my phone if you want to publish my comments.'

        Ahh, you didn't know that Swedenborg is your hard drive?

        Commenter
        Pen of hrba
        Date and time
        May 07, 2012, 5:11PM
      • Too late - the taps have been in place for some time...

        Commenter
        Dick Gross
        Location
        St Kilda
        Date and time
        May 08, 2012, 5:27PM

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