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Confessional seal again comes under scrutiny

HONG KONG (SE): With the release of the findings of one of the most significant investigations into Church practice this year, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia has some damning things to say about the structural weakness of the governance of the Church and its inability to manage its own affairs.
But perhaps one of its most controversial recommendations is that a new law be passed requiring priests to report cases of child sexual abuse learned about in the sacrament of confession.
This has drawn a mixed reaction from various sectors, but the two extremes are well represented by Archbishop Anthony Fisher, from Sydney, and a canon lawyer from the Catholic Theological College in the same archdiocese, Father Ian Waters.
Michael Mullins recalls in a blog that during World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008, the then young bishop raised eyebrows when he said that bringing up old historical cases of child sexual abuse was like dwelling crankily on old wounds.
The eyebrows were raised even further when he said recently that the recommendation of the commission is just another way to kill off confession, as it is contrary to canon law.
However, Father Waters, who is highly qualified in canon law and Church administration, disagrees.
Father Waters told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that in the hearing of confession priests have infinite room to move pastorally and there are means of ensuring that abuse is reported to the police without breaking the seal.
These two comments may reflect the two extremes of the discussion, but even when testifying before the commission the bishops were unable to present a united front, with Archbishop Philip Wilson, from Adelaide, stating that from his study, he believes that the seal may only relate to sins that are being confessed, not other material spoken about in the box.
He explained that a young person, in telling of being sexually abused, is not confessing a sin, but giving information about a situation, so he believes there should be more leeway to respond in a variety of ways than previously thought.
However, Archbishop Fisher said he would protect the trust that nothing uttered under the seal of confession could ever be repeated, as to do otherwise would be like bugging the confessional.
However, he would strongly encourage the young person to report the matter, but if he could not persuade them, it would remain confidential.
Archbishop Denis Hart, from Melbourne, supported this position.
One of the commissioners, Robert Fitzgerald, responded to the bishops saying, “In a sense, the Church is in a dilemma, a dilemma that it equally wishes to protect children and equally wishes to maintain the seal of confession.”
However, the issue of the confessional is only one point that was raised by the commission. It describes the structure of the governance of the Church as not promoting accountability or transparency, as well as naming an all-male clerical culture as compounding the difficulties.
A group of concerned Catholics in Sydney says in a letter posted on the Internet that they believe the people in the pews agree, citing a survey taken by the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference in 2013 of 2,800 practicing Catholics in 200 parishes, showing that they hold great respect for individual priests, but not senior leadership.
The group subscribes to the words of constitutional lawyer, Father Frank Brennan sj, at the Justice Awards in Parliament House in Sydney in 2012. It quotes him as saying, “Clearly the Church itself cannot be left alone to get its house in order. That would be a wrongful invocation of freedom of religion in a pluralist and democratic society.”
The concerned Catholics add that canon law has proven insufficient in disciplining the clergy, not only in the area of child sexual abuse, but in many forms of abuse of power.
As the chairperson of Concerned Catholics of Canberra and Goulburn, John Warhurst, notes, “But the bishops show no inclination to tackle these structural and cultural issues, so it is up to the Catholic laity to do so. This is the strong message of Francis Sullivan, the lay head of the Church’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Council.”
The emeritus professor of politics from the Australian National University adds, “Unfortunately, historically the Catholic Church is not a community in which its lay members are called on to play such a role. Instead, as Bishop Vincent Long, from Parramatta, has pointed out on several occasions recently, the Church is a pyramid in which the ordained clergy are at the pinnacle and the laity at the bottom.”
Even with the calling of the much neglected national synod for 2020, a process so highly recommended by Vatican II as a means of promoting shared discussion between clergy and laity in the Church, Warhurst notes that once again a committee has been chosen by the bishops to set the agenda, without any consultation or involvement of lay people in the process.
While he has no argument with the calibre of the people chosen, he called the selection process a bad start to something that has the potential to be life giving for the much dented Australian Church.
However, he concludes by saying that more than consultation is required. The laity must have a real involvement in the decision-making process of the Church.

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