James Parker: New threat to seal of confession

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Pope Francis hears confessions
Pope Francis hears the confession of a priest March 7, 2019, at Rome’s Basilica of St. John Lateran. The pope administered the sacrament to several priests during his annual Lenten meeting with the priests of the Diocese of Rome. PHOTO: CNS/Vatican Media

Spare some prayers for the confessional seal in Western Australia.

WA’s Minister for Child Protection, Simone McGurk, recently announced a law to force Catholic and Orthodox priests to report child sexual abuse should mention be made during confession.

This has invited yet another flurry of distasteful comments from Joe Public about all things Catholic, accompanied by a good dose of mockery and misunderstanding of the confessional.

One voice for common sense was WAToday’s political reporter, Nathan Hondros. He reported that the proposed law would be “unworkable, unenforceable and have no public policy value”, “a cynical waste of time designed to distract voters from serious child protection failures in WA”. And WA has some grossly serious failures.

“What kind of child abuser goes to confession, anyway?” he rightly stated. “And if they did, they can do so in a way that is anonymous. The priest doesn’t know who they are.”

Hondros quoted from an equally sensible Perth priest who said that clergy were “unanimous that we would report [child abuse] if it was in a situation outside of the confessional that we learnt this information, but we would never report what happened within.”

McGurk appears to have drastically misunderstood the nature of confession and its sacred purpose. Permit me to share a unique aspect of the confessional relating to abuse which you will rarely hear about.

Priests don’t speak of survivors visiting the confessional. They mustn’t. Everyone knows this. No. It is survivors themselves who have told me how the permanency of the seal has helped them to start their journey of recovery.

The Catholic and Orthodox priesthoods’ serious commitment to the seal has assisted survivors to come to terms with their own stories and often buried histories.

A Sacrament of healing for survivors

When in confession, survivors are in charge of how long they wish to speak and share for.

This is not always felt in therapy which for some victims can mirror past abuse. (Think about it: four walls and a closed door, expectations from an adult before them who earns money from survivors’ misfortunes.)

A swift few minutes in confession is sometimes all a survivor can bear to speak for, followed by a quick exit.

Survivors can remain anonymous while speaking openly in confession. And it costs nothing. Therapy is the opposite.

Confession is mostly available outside of working hours which therapy isn’t. And no scary professional notes are taken and filed away under lock and key.

These aspects of the confessional, secured by the seal, are invaluable to many survivors’ initial journeys of recovery.

Father Timothy J. Mockaitis, pastor of Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Salem, Ore., and penitent Ethan K. Alano of Salem demonstrate how a confession is conducted May 3, 2019. Photo: CNS photo/Chaz Muth
The Confessional Seal is invaluable to many survivors’ initial journeys of recovery. Photo: CNS photo/Chaz Muth

It remains the only space – a truly sacred space – in society where some victims begin to find a voice and come to terms with their childhood trauma.

The recovery journey can be excruciatingly painful, lengthy, and lifelong. The Royal Commission has born witness to this. Getting it right is imperative.

Survivors return to the confessional because this setting has got it right and offers the necessary safety and respect.

Do not think that it is only Catholic and Orthodox Christians who take advantage of the windowed closed door and inner curtain of the confessional which today ensure the penitent can be seen by the public and therefore feel safe, but cannot be identified by the priest which safeguards any disclosure.

No. It is also people from other Christian denominations who quietly take advantage of this exclusive, redemptive setting.

The seal ensures safety for survivors

Since the proposed change to WA’s confession laws, I have received calls from two survivors. Both are now on a knife edge.

The first is now fearful a priest might need to pressure her to confess who her abuser was.

She has never named her childhood abuser to anyone, sharing merely that he was a family member whom she still loves very much. She is now fearful to return to the confessional, previously a place of safety which has brought incredible healing to her.

The second caller told me that he had disclosed to several priests in confession details of the man who abused him as a child, although again no name has ever been mentioned. He is now scared.

First, that his past sharing has put pressure onto priests that will force them by law to compromise their, and his, integrity.

Secondly, that pressure may in the future be placed upon him by a priest to disclose more than he is comfortable to reveal with the purpose that his childhood abuser be hunted down and brought to trial.

As a survivor of extensive childhood sexual abuse, I too can testify to the power of the seal.

It played an integral role in building my inner strength during gradual disclosures which led me to approach the Police and report historical abuse. This resulted in the conviction of a prolific paedophile.

If I had questioned the confessional seal at the outset I would never have found the same courage to speak up.

Fewer disclosures mean fewer convictions which mean more abuse. Not quite the outcome a Minister for Child Protection should pursue.

What WA’s government and the rabid online lynch mob have all failed miserably to consider is that interference with the confessional has a debilitating effect primarily on survivors, not on perpetrators.

Yet again we see unworkable, unenforceable public policy causing more harm than good, and all falsely paraded as justice.

So please, do pray for child protection in WA, for the bishops and clergy, and equally for survivors. God knows how much we all need him in this mess.