Archbishop Anthony Fisher defends Seal of Confession

Father Saul Rosario hears a young girl’s confession on 19 November 2016 near the US-Mexico border fence in Tijuana, Mexico. The Mass and procession which followed were a call to remember and pray for migrants. PHOTO: CNS

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP has defended the Catholic Church’s “sacramental seal” of Confession, after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released a report recommending that Australian law require that priests divulge to authorities any information about the sexual abuse of children communicated to them while ministering the sacrament.

Archbishop Fisher rejected the recommendation stating in a letter to fellow priests, “I believe the spiritual encounter between a penitent and God must remain inviolable and that Catholic priests and penitents should not be threatened with a criminal offence for practising their religion.”

The Catholic Church strictly forbids its priests from ever disclosing what is revealed to them by people confessing their sins during the sacrament of Confession. This is referred to as the “sacramental seal.” Australian law currently grants Catholic priests an exemption from reporting crimes revealed to them during Confession.

“The proposal to abolish the confessional seal will help no child,” Archbishop Fisher said. “We should focus on measures that really will protect children and I fully support every effort by the Royal Commission and others to do that.”

On 14 August the Royal Commission released its report containing 85 recommendations including that, “… there be no exemption, excuse, protection or privilege from the offence granted to clergy for failing to report information disclosed in connection with a religious confession.”

The report further states, “The royal commission heard of cases in religious settings where perpetrators who made a religious confession to sexually abusing children went on to reoffend and seek forgiveness.”

However, in his letter, Archbishop Fisher states, “Child sexual abuse is a terrible crime. It is very, very rare for a perpetrator to confess it, as sadly perpetrators do not accept how evil their deeds are.”

“If trust in the ‘seal’ or absolute confidentiality of Confession is diminished, then it is less likely that the rare perpetrator who does approach a priest will be encouraged to face the evil of their actions, to report to the authorities, and to take appropriate action to cease the offending.”

In an apparent change of stance, the CEO of the council set up by the Catholic Church in Australia to respond to the findings of the Royal Commission, made initial statements to the media seeming to support the recommendation that Catholic priests be required by law to break the seal of the confessional for cases of child sexual abuse.

Francis Sullivan, a layman who heads the Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, said, “If ultimately there are new laws that oblige the disclosure of information heard in the Confessional, priests, like everyone else, will be expected to obey the law or suffer the consequences.”

“If they do not this will be a personal, conscience decision, on the part of the priest that will have to be dealt with by the authorities in accordance with the new laws as best they can,” he added.

Appearing to agree with the Royal Commission’s recommendation, Mr Sullivan, who has previously defended the legal exemption for Church’s seal of Confession, was reported by the Sydney Morning Herald on 14 August as saying, “If this becomes the law of the land, then all clergy will abide by the law of the land or suffer the consequences. This is a law seeking to protect children. You can’t ask for a higher moral cause.”

In stark contrast however, Archbishop Denis Hart, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, in his statement said: “Confession in the Catholic Church is a spiritual encounter with God through the priest. It is a fundamental part of the freedom of religion, and it is recognised in the Law of Australia and many other countries. It must remain so here in Australia. Outside of this all offences against children must be reported to the authorities, and we are absolutely committed to doing so.”

Mr Sullivan also maintained that normally a priest would require that a penitent who had confessed to sexually abusing children turn themselves in to police. “In fact the priest can insist that this is done before dispensing absolution,” he stated.

Archbishop Fisher countered this however, writing, “I understand that some people purporting to speak for the Catholic Church have welcomed the proposed change in the law, or suggested that contrite penitents might be refused absolution until they self-incriminate, or claimed that what victims of abuse report in Confession need not be treated as confidential. I do not agree.”

He also stated, “If a perpetrator or a victim of abuse tells a Confessor of this crime in Confession, the Confessor is free to ask the penitent to repeat this to him outside Confession so that they can resolve together what further action might be taken.”

Archbishop Fisher reiterated the right to religious freedom, saying, “Australia has always recognised the freedom of the Christian Churches and other serious faiths to practise their sacraments and other rituals unimpeded. I believe we should continue to give people of faith that space.”

“It is also noteworthy,” he pointed out, “that the Royal Commission report does not propose removing the legal privilege currently recognised for confidential communications with lawyers or psychiatrists. Nor does it examine the non-institutional settings where most child abuse occurs. Why should priests be the only ones targeted here?”

Prominent Jesuit priest Fr Frank Brennan – a professor of law at the Australian Catholic University—was reported in The Australian on 15 August as saying that he rejected the Royal Commission’s recommendation on removing the legal exemption for the seal of Confession, and that as a priest he had never had anyone confess child sexual abuse to him.

“And if there is a law that says I have to disclose it, then yes, I will conscientiously refuse to comply with the law,” he said.

“All I can say is that in 32 years no one has ever come to me and confessed anything like that. And instituting such a law, I say, simply reduces rather than increases the prospect that anyone ever will come and confess that to me.”

The Truth Justice Healing Council released a further statement on 15 August, seeking to clarify their stance on the issue stating: “Francis Sullivan, CEO of the Catholic Church’s Truth Justice Healing Council, in response to media inquiries, has today reiterated that the position of the Council on maintaining an exemption for reporting information relating to child sexual abuse revealed in the confessional has not changed.”

“…the TJHC respects the Commission’s processes but continues to maintain that the exemption remains in place.”

Archbishop Fisher concluded his letter to priests saying, “We should not interfere with a practice core to the religious beliefs of so many Australians.” He exhorted all priests “to maintain an absolute seal on everything they learn from beginning to the end of each Confession.”

“And I thank you, dear brothers in the ministry of mercy,” he wrote, “for persevering in generously offering your people opportunities to participate in this sacrament.”