The Queensland Parliament in Australia has passed legislation that basically requires anyone with knowledge of child sexual abuse to report it to police. That includes Catholic priests who hear about that abuse in a confessional booth. The “sanctity” of that ritual is no longer a defense for secrecy.
The bill, officially titled “Criminal Code (Child Sexual Offences Reform) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2019,” is designed to protect children and was one of the key recommendations made by the Australian Royal Commission in 2017 after its years-long public inquiry into child sex abuse.
Here’s what has changed. The new law punishes adults with up to three years in prison if they find out that “a child sexual offence is being or has been committed against a child by another adult” and do not report it to the police. The law includes this caveat:
For subsection (1), it does not matter that the information was gained by the adult during, or in connection with, a religious confession.
Notice they didn’t specify the Catholic Church. But naturally, it’s the Catholic Church that’s furious that the rights of children not to be molested are taking precedence over their desire to uphold ancient religious rituals. Earlier this year, Brisbane’s Catholic Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the change wouldn’t even make a bit of difference:
Archbishop Coleridge said breaking the seal had practical limits, as most confessions were anonymous.
Furthermore, a perpetrator or victim might be less likely to raise abuse in confession if confidence in the sacramental seal was undermined.
“The seal recognises the right of the sinful human being to approach God in complete freedom,” he wrote.
“It enables the penitent to speak openly before God … to hide nothing from the God who sees all and forgives all.”
No one cares if abusers can be forgiven by God. But if a priest learns about abuse and doesn’t tell anyone, that can and should be a punishable offense. Now it will be.
I’m reminded of a segment from the popular Australian show The Weekly, from 2018, in which the host discussed a challenge by priests against an identical law in South Australia.
Now [acting Archbishop of Adelaide, Greg O’Kelly], seen here on his Twitter profile having literally lost his flock, is the acting archbishop because his predecessor was convicted of covering up child abuse. O’Kelly said the seal of confession is sacred. Well, it is a sacred seal the Church has used to protect serial child abusers who landed them in the Royal Commission in the first place.
Like Rockhampton priest Father Michael McArdle, who confessed 1,500 times to molesting children, to 30 different priests, over a 25-year period. He was forgiven 1,500 times and told merely to go home and pray.
That, according to the Church, is sacred. And none of our business.
The church is fine with laws that protect it from paying tax but refuses to abide a law designed to protect innocent children from abuse.
If O’Kelly has his way, victims could be left without proper justice while abusers are able to alleviate their guilt and shame. Rather than protecting victims from predators, they are protecting the predators and doing it in God’s name.
I’m not allowed to say on TV what I think of O’Kelly because I am subject to the law. Maybe I should swing by his confessional, because apparently there, I can get away with anything.
That law eventually passed in South Australia… and Victoria, and Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory.
No one has any sympathy for the Catholic Church at this point. It’s a crime syndicate that lashes out every time their authority is questioned, even when the only goal is to protect children.
But in Queensland, the Church had allies in conservative lawmakers:
But One Nation MP Stephen Andrew said it set a dangerous precedent for religious leaders.
“The bill poses a real danger for public trust and cohesion in our community,” Mr Andrew said.
“Many priests and bishops have publicly stated that they will go to jail before obeying these laws.
“How confident can the people of Queensland be that they live in a free and open democracy governed by the rule of law, where the state jails its bishops?”
He thought the bill posed a danger for public trust? Not passing the bill — and letting the Church function as normal — is far more dangerous to children. Demanding that priests do the bare minimum to protect kids isn’t asking much. There’s no “rule of law” to begin with if religious leaders are exempt from it.
No one’s jailing bishops over nothing. Andrew failed to mention that such priests would only be jailed if they learned about child abuse and chose to keep it a secret.
Thank goodness his side lost.
Everyone has to play by these rules. Just because you’re a Catholic Church leader doesn’t mean you can commit a crime. At least not anymore.
(Image via Shutterstock)