Thinking outside the box: apply the same rules to all
Poll: Should the law require priests to report to police any cases of child abuse revealed in the confessional?
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Total votes: 5943.
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Poll closed 19 Nov, 2012
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A DECADE ago Father Frank Brennan, a high-profile Jesuit priest who is now professor of law at the Australian Catholic University, had a woman confess to him that she was a murderess.
Brennan, with a deep belief in the sanctity of the confessional, would not have dreamed of going to the police, even if the law required it, which it does not. Anyway, Brennan asks, what good would it have done? He didn't know the names of the woman or her alleged victim, nor the time or place of the alleged crime.
Brennan has never had anyone confess to child sex abuse. He believes the intense debate about whether priests should have to report what they've heard from confessions is beside the point. The perpetrators don't share those secrets in the confessional box (although it is perhaps more likely priests might pick up information about perpetrators from victims).
So why has this issue become a touchstone in the present debate, with even strongly Catholic Liberal Christopher Pyne saying the seal of confession should be broken to report child sex abuse? Perhaps because the secrecy of the confessional is symbolic: the strong perception is that the Catholic Church has failed to adequately tackle child sex abuse. Depending on the critic's viewpoint, it has tried to cover it up or at least its attempts to deal with it have fallen short.
Every now and then, an issue bursts into a political fire that engulfs the politicians. A highly effective lobbying campaign and general public disgust had politicians on both sides forced to confront the need for action. Hence Tony Abbott's support on Monday for a royal commission, provided it wasn't just about the Catholics, and Julia Gillard's announcement of one. The PM felt she could not wait while even the barest detail was worked out: we'll investigate everything, was her message, leaving the fine print for later.
Run over in this general dash to be seen to be acting was a powerful figure who is ''political'' himself: Sydney's Catholic archbishop, Cardinal George Pell. Pell had been consistently against a royal commission, but in the end he could not hold the line. He could not even hold Abbott, with whom he is close.
The commission presents problems for Pell; he promises co-operation but he is being challenged by internal critics. Retired auxiliary bishop of the Sydney archdiocese Geoffrey Robinson, a respected voice on the child abuse issue, has unloaded on Pell, whom he described as ''not a team player''. Robinson told the ABC that in fully co-operating with the royal commission, the bishops would need someone who spoke for them and Pell wasn't the right person. The bishops were ''going to have to confront George Pell head on'', he said, adding, ''he'd probably speak anyway, but at least it could be made clear that he's speaking strictly for himself''.
While the church is in the spotlight, the government has cast the commission's remit so widely that it potentially covers every organisation where there could have been abuse. This is fair, but a nightmare in practice, and one reason why no time limit has been set. There are fears its breadth will dilute its focus. While Gillard has said the inquiry should not be time constrained, the government might be better initially to set a reporting date; a deadline always concentrates attention and can be extended. Or at least let's have progress reports.
The government is talking to the states about whether to make it a joint federal-state royal commission. Most of the relevant powers are state ones; joint action would also make it easier to weave in current state investigations.
The Yes Minister joke is to never set up an inquiry unless you know what its findings will be. But, often, governments haven't a clue. The Fraser government's painters and dockers royal commission on union thuggery revealed the so-called ''bottom of the harbour'' tax evasion that became an embarrassing and divisive problem for the Liberals.
This commission will, it is hoped, help many people who have been victims. It will also claim a host of victims of another sort - likely to include institutions no one has so far thought much about. The shake-ups will extend far beyond the Catholic Church.
And what of the confessional? The Irish Parliament has this year passed a law requiring disclosure from all people with information about serious criminal offences against children and vulnerable adults. It covers what priests hear in confession.
Norah Gibbons, who was a member of the Irish commission into child abuse, told the ABC on Thursday: ''I think our Taoiseach [prime minister] and our state have made a very important statement: that the state is responsible for the laws of the country and for protecting children, and that nothing is above that, and I think that is a good guiding principle for any country.''
That is surely the point. There should be one rule for everybody. If there are certain situations in which doctors and teachers who come upon information are compelled to break confidences, the same rule should apply to the clergy. That the confessional might not be a rich source does not affect the principle.
Compulsory reporting of child sex crimes would not stop an individual priest sticking with the sanctity of the confessional if relevant information did happen to come to him. He could risk being found out.
But that would be a dilemma for him, wouldn't it? His conscience would be clear about confessional confidentiality. But mightn't he feel guilty about breaking the law, especially in the knowledge that by holding back information he might be putting young people at further risk?
Michelle Grattan is political editor.