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Confessional seal challenged

SYDNEY (SE): The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has recommended that Australian states and territories introduce legislation to overrule the long held sacred nature of the seal of the confessional.
If carried out in the six states and two territories the legislation would demand that priests from across the country comply with a mandatory reporting to police requirement in the event of anyone confessing to child sexual abuse.
The seal of confession has long been held as absolute and sacred. Canon Law states, “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.”
The canon also carries extreme penalties for any priest who breaks this seal, including excommunication, which can only be lifted by the pope.
The issue has been a testy one for some years. Ireland passed the Children First Act in 2015, requiring priests to report on certain matters regarding child sexual abuse.
However, it is not a completely authoritative statement and not a legal interpretation.
Courts in the United States of America (US) grappled with the seal of the confessional as recently as last year. Father Jeff Bayhi had been ordered by a court to divulge information regarding the confessional and even threatened with prison.
However, on October 28, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that priests are not required to report on any matter that they hear in the confession box.
“A priest when administering the sacrament of confession has no duty to report any confidential communications made during the confession that, by the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church, he is authorised to hear and is also duty bound to keep confidential,” the court said in its ruling.
The Supreme Court of the US declined to even hear the case.
Nevertheless, it was a testy and long drawn out affair, prompting much speculation among clergy and legal experts, with the predictable statement from one that he would rather go to prison than reveal any content of a confession.
In Australia, Archbishop Denis Hart, from Melbourne, took on the role and last year he stated, “I have no hesitation in stating that priests will guard the sanctity of the seal of confession with their very lives. They would certainly undergo imprisonment rather than violate it.”
Australian political commentator and legal expert, Father Frank Brennan SJ, stated, “If a law is introduced to say that a priest should reveal a confession, I’m one of those priests who will disobey the law.”
Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on August 14, Noel Debien notes, “Professor Brennan was not being overly dramatic. He spoke in consistent agreement with more than a millennium of Catholic practice and law.”
However, there was disagreement before the Royal Commission on the nature of confessional material among clergy who appeared.
Canon lawyer, Father Ian Waters, said that if the matter related to an offence by a third party then it would not break the seal of confession if the third party was reported.
In response to senior counsel, Gail Furness, the bishops fielded questions on a hypothetical situation about a girl who reported she had been sexual abused to a priest in the confessional.
The responses of the five bishops differed somewhat, with one, Archbishop Philip Wilson, from Adelaide, giving quite a different story from the other four.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported Archbishop Anthony Fisher, from Sydney, as saying he would protect the trust that nothing uttered under the seal of confession could ever be repeated, but would strongly encourage the girl to report the matter to the authorities.
However, he noted that if he could not persuade her, it would remain confidential, otherwise it would be like bugging the confessional box, a position that Archbishop Hart supported.
However, Archbishop Wilson said that in light of his studies on the matter, he is of the opinion that the seal of the confessional only applies to sins that are confessed and, as she is telling a story in which she is a victim and not confessing a sin, there is leeway for something to be done.
“It seemed to me to be plausible in those circumstances that if a child told you this was happening to them, they’re not confessing a sin, they’re just giving you some information about what’s happening to them and in that doctrine, it would be possible then to do something about it,” the Australian Broadcasting Corporation quoted the archbishop of Adelaide as saying.
However, the combined opinion of the bishops was not clear as one commissioner, Robert Fitzgerald, pointed out they have two conflicting sacred obligations.
The bishops at the hearing promised to address these matters at their May plenary and, although they acknowledged the issue, it is a matter for another day.
The public summary from the conference says, “The bishops addressed matters concerning the sacrament of penance, the continuing work of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council and public liturgies of sorrow, lament and healing.”
St. Thomas More lost his head because he would not swear that the Church was subject to the state first and the pope second and if the legislation over the confessional seal is pushed further there is every possibility that heads in either the Church or state will roll.

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