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On breaking the seal of confession

November 27, 2012 ·  , GEOFFREY ROBINSON NOVEMBER 22, 2012

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Last week, in an interview on ABC radio, I made a statement about the seal of confession and sexual abuse. I have been challenged on that statement, have thought further about it, and wish to make a new statement. The matter is closely allied to the question of the treatment centre run by the Church, and I’d like to start there.

It was a treatment centre, so the clinicians asked only questions directly related to treatment. This did not include seeking admissions of specific offences and, in particular, it did not involve asking the name and address of any victim. To ask such questions would send the client running away from the treatment. The clinicians therefore did not have knowledge of specific crimes.

More importantly, if one single person had been reported to the police, the entire treatment program would have closed down permanently the same day, for no offender would ever again come near it. In gaining information on one single client that may or may not have been useful in securing a conviction, the price to be paid would have been that no offenders into the future would receive any treatment.

If you ask me whether I can give a guarantee that a particular offender will never offend again after treatment, then no, I cannot give it. But if you ask me whether the number of new offences will be significantly, even dramatically less if 100 offenders receive serious treatment, then yes, I can give that guarantee.

This is a question that society must face. Do we wish to adopt only a single solution of punishment for all cases of sexual abuse? Or do we wish to include treatment as another option? If we can have both, so much the better, but on many occasions that is not possible. Sometimes we have to choose between punishment and prevention.

I believe the treatment centre did a great deal of good. Money spent there was not money spent on offenders rather than on victims, as many have alleged. It was money spent in the attempt to prevent future offences.

iConcerning the confessional, the first point to make is that paedophile priests simply do not go to confession. Partly this is because of the distorted thinking that is commonly part of their offence, that they have convinced themselves that what they are doing is not wrong. Partly, it is due to a fear that any priest they approach would not give them an easy absolution, but instead be very demanding indeed in terms of a ‘purpose of amendment’.

If any ever did go to confession, they’d make sure it was in circumstances where they would not be recognised.

The priest hearing the confession would probably not know of the identity of the offender or of the victim, and so would have no specific crime to report. Furthermore, if a single priest broke the seal of confession and reported the matter to the police, that would be the last time any paedophile priest confessed to anything anywhere.

If such a priest came to me, I would be aware that I was dealing with the rare case of a paedophile priest who still had something left of his conscience, and I would try to use that opportunity.

I would remind him of the essential requirement of a ‘purpose of amendment’ or firm intention not to sin again, and that the very high rate of reoffending in this field was notorious. I would tell him that by means of mere words he was not able to give me any satisfactory guarantee that he would never offend again.

I would say that both he and I could have any confidence in his promise only if he took serious and concrete practical steps to ensure that he would not offend again.

If I thought the atmosphere would allow it, I might mention the police as a means of facing his responsibilities and putting the past behind him, but I’d be aware that this might send him running from the confessional. If that path were not open, I’d discuss other practical possibilities. I’d suggest he enrol for treatment and bring me back proof that he had done so. If we then talked about absolution, we’d both have more confidence that it was real.

If he were not willing to take these practical steps, I would tell him that I really could not believe in his purpose of amendment and so could not in conscience before God and the community give him absolution.

My actions here would once again depend on the community recognising treatment as being better than nothing and allowing for its possibility.

The seal of the confessional is a very high value. If one priest started breaking it, we would enter a subjective world in which different priests used different criteria and in which no one would ever confess, not just to sexual abuse, but to anything at all that anyone might consider a crime. We would then lose the opportunity for change and healing that the confessional can provide.

In 52 years as a priest I have never had to face a conflict situation over the seal of the confessional and sexual abuse, and I don’t believe I ever shall. Having said that, I know that life is full of the most extraordinary events and I pray sincerely that I never face a situation where I was convinced that an innocent minor would be abused unless I broke the seal. I believe I would find it impossibly difficult to live with that abuse on my conscience.

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson is former auxiliary bishop of Sydney and author of Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church.

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