In the Catholic Church, the seal of the confessional is the absolute duty to priests not to disclose anything that they learn from ‘penitents’ during the confession. According to canon law: “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason”1.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released 85 recommendations on improvements to the criminal justice system. Among them was a proposal to break the seal of the confessional, and that any clergy who fail to report child abuse revealed in the confessional should face criminal prosecution, just as anyone else in Australia would do should anyone confide in them that they had committed such a crime. Since the Catholic Church is the only major religion in Australia that still insists its canon law be above secular law1, the Catholic Church spat the dummy.
The Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart stated that “I believe that this is an absolutely sacrosanct communication of a higher order which priests by nature respect”, then continued “…they don’t ever want to do anything that would hurt children”2. This would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic. Father Frank Brennan said he would go to jail before abiding by such a law and explained it this way: “Common sense tells me that a sex abuser would be even less likely to present for confession if he knew that the confessional seal did not apply”. He then wrote: “If the seal of the confessional were maintained, there is a chance, just a chance, that a child sex abuser might be convinced by the priest to turn himself in. Take away the seal and that ever so slim chance will be snuffed out”2. I would argue that if the seal was not absolute, there may be an ever so slim chance that the child molester might confess to someone else who is not bound by the seal. Both this slender chance and Brennan’s are equally improbable, as the results of the royal commission show. Either way, if the seal is absolute and crimes are not reported, or if the seal is not absolute and no abusers confess, the result is the same. Priests will still get away with abusing children.
The communications between a solicitor and their client are confidential and it is sometimes even maintained if the client admits to committing a crime. However, the Crimes Act in various jurisdictions requires the disclosure to the authorities of information about the commission of serious indictable offences. If keeping that confidentiality would facilitate the commission of another serious crime, then it is likely that the solicitor would attract criticism3. The seal of the confession is the position that the 30 priests who heard the confession of Father Michael McArdle, who sexually assaulted up to 1500 children over a 25 year period. Not one of these priests ever reported his crimes to the authorities, and McArdle continued his depredations, because, as he stated, his confessors forgave him, and he was told to go home and pray. He said it was like “a magic wand had been waved over me” and the clean slate allowed him to reoffend, commonly within the week4. This went on for decades, and if there was any urging for McArdle to report himself to police, it clearly had no effect. If the seal of the confessional was not absolute, would McArdle have confessed? Nobody knows. If, because the seal was not absolute and McArdle hadn’t confessed would the absence of the forgiveness ‘wand’ have forced him to seek help, or confess to the police? Nobody knows.
The seal of the confessional is all about the clergy having power over people; not the power of telling, but the power of knowing, and that is what they are so afraid to relinquish. No ‘law’, canon or otherwise, should ever be above the secular law under which all Australians live. If somebody confessed to me that they had committed a serious crime, I would tell the authorities, so should everyone. The church has abjectly failed to protect children from voracious sexual predators like McArdle. Indeed, it has effectively encouraged him by forgiving him his crimes, again and again. The protection of children should be paramount, and not the protection of priests’ perceived power over people. If Frank Brennan is quite prepared to go to jail rather than break the seal of the confessional, then that would be a small price to pay for protecting children from monsters.