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Breaking the seal of the confessional

By Peter Bowden - posted Tuesday, 26 June 2018

The New South Wales Government has put off tackling the issue of forcing priests to reveal abuse they learn about in the confessional, despite the Commonwealth saying it is largely a state responsibility.

This opinion piece is written to convince the State government to think through this decision and to act as recommended by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The NSW Government has unveiled its formal response to the Royal Commission, accepting 336 of the recommendations. The recommendation to force priests to break the seal of the confessional to report abuse is among 14 recommendations being subjected to further consideration. This opinion piece is written is convince the NSW government to act.


The concept that the admission of wrongdoing in the confessional is similar to the duty of confidentiality which obliges legal advisors to respect their clients' affairs. Information that solicitors obtain about their clients' actions must not be used for the benefit of persons not authorized by the client. This duty however, has faced considerable opposition, and is much discussed in legal ethical journals. This writer, a teacher of ethics, holds the view that if a lawyer finds out that his client is guilty, he or she has the moral obligation to reveal it. I have the same belief about crimes revealed in the confessional

The religious question is, however, more complex. The Catholic website," Catholic Straight Answers" asks the question: "Can the priest ever reveal what is said in confession? The simple, straight answer is "no."

Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart has said he does not support some of the 189 new recommendations delivered by the Royal Commission, including the confessional decision. An ABC news site also informs us that the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher also warned against opening up the confessional.

Both Archbishops Hart and Fisher are out of step with Australian moral values. Both also recommended a NO vote on the recent gay marriage referendum. To argue in this case that priests can keep criminal activity hidden is also morally wrong. Nearly 2,000 Catholic Church figures were implicated in child sex abuse. The Australian Catholic Church has released data revealing that 7 per cent of priests, working between 1950 and 2009, have been accused of child sex crimes.

The worst-offending institutions, by proportion of their religious staff, have been the orders of brothers, who often run schools and homes for children. This writer, who went to a Christian Brothers school, is well aware of the unacceptable practices of some of the brothers. I suspect, however, although I have no way of knowing, that those teachings brothers who interfered with young boys, did not confess it as a sin.

This seal of secrecy has a long history. A collection of Canon law compiled in 1151 as a legal textbook, shows that the law goes back until then. The 1151 Decretum states: "Let the priest who dares to make known the sins of his penitent be deposed." The Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215), binding on the whole church, reinforced the obligation of secrecy. A Decree from the Holy Office (November 18, 1682) mandated that confessors are forbidden to make any use of the knowledge obtained in the confession that would "displease" the penitent or reveal his identity.


Practices varies in countries around the world. Some permit the priest to remain silent, others require him to speak out. A Children First Bill on mandatory reporting of child abuse has been passed in Ireland. The original 2012 bill proposed a 5-year prison sentences for priests who fail to report sex abuse of minors if they hear about it in the confessional. Seán Brady, the Catholic primate of all Ireland, condemned the proposal. Ireland, however, passed the Children First Act in 2015, requiring mandatory reporting from clergy. NSW legislators can find particulars on the website of Ireland's Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

Breaking the seal of confession has deeper and longer implications than the decisions facing our state legislators. Many wrongs have been committed by Catholics over the centuries. Wrongs that if they were confessed, were not made public. This writer suspects however, that as for the Christian Brothers, these crimes were not confessed, possibly because they were not considered crimes. Among them were:

Bishop Richard Williamson, ordained 1988, expressed a belief that Nazi Germany did not use gas chambers during the Holocaust and that a total of between 200,000 and 300,000 Jews were killed. Based upon these statements, the Bishop was immediately charged with and convicted of Holocaust denial by a German court. Bishop Williamson has a website.

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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