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Opinion: Priests should break the seal of confession when someone admits to child abuse

The most sacred thing in any civilised society should be the protection of children.

Peter Ferguson

THE RECENTLY PUBLISHED Children First Bill will make it mandatory for numerous professionals to report suspected child abuse: gardaí, teachers, clergy, medical practitioners, social workers, and child protection officers. The Bill was originally recommended in 1999 and its intended goals are outlined in the Ryan Commission Implementation Plan 2009.

“The Children First national guidelines emphasise that the needs of children and families must be at the centre of child care and child protection activity, and that a partnership approach must inform the delivery of services. They also highlight the importance of consistency between policies and procedures across statutory and voluntary organisations. The key message of Children First is that responsibility for protecting children must be shared by all adults. Anyone who works with, has responsibility for or comes into contact with children should be aware of the signs of abuse, be alert to the possibility of abuse and be familiar with the basic procedures to report their concerns.”

The Bill, however, has propelled the Government on a collision course with the Catholic Church, which has refused to obey the law if it requires priests to break the seal of confession. According to canon law “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.”

What has been learned?

Seemingly the Church has not learned a thing from the abuse scandal. It still believes canon law supersedes both civil law and the protection of children. Much of the condemnation directed towards the Church is not due to the sexual abuse of children carried out by individual priests but the continued prioritisation of the Catholic Church by the Catholic Church over and above all other considerations, even children. The fact the Church refuses to break the seal of confession to aid abused children illustrates that this immoral precedence is still extant.

Defenders of the inviolability of the seal of confession, such as Fr Chris Hayden, argue that the promise of confidentiality will permit priests to “be in a position of encouraging people to take a step towards healing, or to contact the authorities.” The seal of confession will empower survivors of abuse to make initial steps that might eventually lead to full disclosure, he says. He worries that “mandatory reporting may compromise the possibility of small, initial steps.”

However, this argument is predicated on an unproven assumption. There is no evidence, empirical or even anecdotal, that demonstrates that the seal of confession has indeed encouraged initial first steps in survivors or perpetrators of abuse. In fact, it could easily be argued that the act of confession may have the adverse effect. Abusers may get a sense of absolution by making amends with a higher power and therefore deem it unnecessary to report their crimes and apologise to their victims. If the Church wants their canon law to trump civil law then it must prove that it is more beneficial to children for it do so. In this instance it simply cannot.

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A culture of secrecy and deference

Conversely it could be argued that it has not been proven that breaking the seal of confession will protect children. However, we will never know as long as it remains unbroken. What we do know, and we learned it at great cost, is that a culture of secrecy and deference to canon law instead of civil law within the Catholic Church is detrimental to the well-being of children. The refusal to break the seal of confession to protect children is simply an extension of that culture.

There are very few, if any, moral reasons not to report child abuse, the least of which is the internal rules of any one religion. The Catholic Church may believe that the seal of confession is sacrosanct; however, the most sacred aspect in any civilised society is the protection of children.

Peter Ferguson is a sceptic and a writer, he is a contributing author in the upcoming book 13 Reasons to Doubt, and he blogs at Twitter @humanisticus

Read: Children First bill published, 15 years after it was first mooted

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