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Last month, the Catholic Archbishop of Queensland, Mark Coleridge voiced his opposition to calls for Priests to become mandatory reporters, a move that would destroy the seal of the confessional. Coleridge warned that forcing Priests to break the seal of the confessional would have the effect of turning them into “agents of the state” rather than “servants of God.”
That, of course, is precisely the point. It is beyond doubt that many of the accusations of child abuse leveled against the Church have been well-founded. It is also beyond doubt that the Catholic Church has not always responded to such accusations with the seriousness they ought to have. However, it would be equally true to claim that the spectre of child abuse has been used as an excuse to conjure up anti-Catholicism.
Of the 409 individual recommendations generated by the Royal Commission on Child Abuse, several are targeted directly at religious institutions (and the Catholic Church specifically). First, it has been recommended that Priests be mandated to report confessions of child abuse. Second, that children’s confessions should occur in a public place where Priest and child can be observed by an adult. Third, that “the Australian Catholic Church should request permission from the Vatican to introduce voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy.” Fourth, that candidates for religious ministry undergo independent psychological evaluation. And fifth, that “any person in religious ministry who is the subject of a complaint of child sex abuse which is sustained, or who is convicted of an offence relating the child sex abuse, should be permanently removed from ministry.”
Such proposals are not only impractical, but dangerous. They would have the effect of not only destroying the seal of the confessional, but of destroying the separation of Church and State. It would give the authorities the power to place the Church under observation and to stack it with clergymen who support their political and social agenda.
Nobody says anything about this blatant disregard for our most common civil liberties and democratic values. The fact of the matter is that the Catholic Church has always been an easy target. It is neither progressive nor nationalistic making it a target of condemnation for both the far left and the far right. The far left hates the Catholic Church because it stands in favour of traditionalism. The far-right hates members of the Catholic Church because they see it as something akin to fealty to a foreign power.
And like all bigots, anti-Catholics have chosen to target and destroy a high-profile target. Cardinal George Pell has become a scapegoat for child sex abuse committed within the Catholic Church. The mainstream media has been quick to paint Pell as a power-mad, sexually depraved Cardinal rather than the reformer that he actually was.
As Archbishop of Melbourne, Pell was instrumental in instigating investigations into allegations of child abuse and providing compensation for victims. That, however, made not the slightest difference, nor did the improbability of the accusations. (As Pell’s own defence team pointed out: not only did the security and layout of Melbourne’s Catholic Cathedral render such abuse impossible, Pell had no opportunity to commit such crimes). When he was accused of abusing two boys in the 1990s, Pell’s guilt was assumed for no other reason than that he was a Catholic Archbishop.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge is right to criticise anti-religious measures embedded in the Royal Commission’s report. The reality is that Australia’s modern, secular institutions are focused primarily on destroying the influence of the Catholic Church in Australia. The idea that they care about the safety and well-being of children is patently absurd.
Priests and Ministers of Religion in South Australia will be required to report child abuse confessed to them under new laws that come into effect in October.
The Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017 has replaced the Children’s Protection Act 1993. The Attorney General’s Department has claimed that these changes will “better protect children from potential harm, and align with the recommendations of the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.”
These new laws represent a disturbing phenomenon. Namely, the use of a highly emotive issue as a means for undermining the rights and freedoms of others. This law, and others around Australia (the ACT Parliament has passed similar laws with almost universal support), blatantly violates both religious liberty and the right to privacy.
Confession is one of the most important aspects of the Catholic Faith. Comprising one of the seven sacraments (the others being Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, the anointing of the sick, and Holy Orders), Catholics believe that an individual who confesses his sins is speaking directly with God. Whatever is confessed remains between that individual and God.
The privacy of the Confessional is known as “the Seal.” The Vatican has had strict rules on the privacy of the confessional since 1215 and Priests are bound by a sacred vow not to break the seal. A Priest who breaks the seal, even after the penitent has died, faces excommunication.
Some critics have accused the supporters of these new laws of undermining religious liberty and of targeting the Catholic Church. The Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Christopher Prowse, criticised the law, say: “The Government threatens religion freedom by appointing itself an expert on religious practices and by attempting to change the sacrament of confession while delivering no improvement on the safety of children.”
Some priests have even claimed that they would rather go to prison than break the seal of the confessional.
At some point, people are going to have to realise that children are not the centre of the universe. They are going to have realise that their safety is not so important that it trumps the rights and freedoms of everybody else. The laws passed by the Parliament of South Australia are an absolute violation of religious liberty and the separation of church and state.
Countries like Australia have had a great tradition of separating politics from religion. Now it seems that this distinction only goes one way. It is seen as totally unacceptable for the Church to use its power and influence to affect politics, but for some reason it is seen as perfectly acceptable for the state to interfere in religion.
One cannot help but cynically suspect that politicians in South Australia are using children as a backdoor method for allowing the all-seeing eye of the state into relationships that were once deemed absolutely private. That which is confessed to a Priest ought to remain absolutely private. The contents of my conscience (or anyone else’s, for that matter) are none of the state’s business.
Those who support this blatant attack on the rights and liberties of others should ask themselves what their opinion would be if the law violated their private relationship with their doctor, lawyer, or psychiatrist.