The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has made a swathe of recommendations, however the one that is attracting the most interest in the media is the recommendation that clergy should be required to break the seal of the confessional and mandatorily report any confession of abuse of a child.
The Roman Catholic Church has responded through bishops and priests declaring that they will not break the seal of the confessional, even if the law is changed.
That to me is a heartbreaking response. We cannot put the spiritual welfare of the abuser above the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual welfare of their victim(s).
Thankfully in the Anglican Church we have already made moves to ensure priests are not bound by the confessional seal in the case of child sexual abuse. At the 2014 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia the canon regarding private confession was amended to allow for clergy to break the seal of confession in certain circumstances.
Under the amended canon, should a penitent make a confession of having committed a serious offence, then the priest is free to break the seal of confession if they are not satisfied that the penitent has reported the matter to the police and the director of professional standards (if they are a church worker or member of clergy).
The canon defines a serious offence as the following*:
“serious offence” means a criminal offence of the Commonwealth, of a State or of a Territory, or of another country which is equivalent to such a criminal offence of the Commonwealth, of a State or of a Territory:
(a) involving child abuse; or
(b) involving child exploitation material; or
(c) punishable by imprisonment for life or for a term of 5 years or more.
For me this is a common sense provision in the law of the church. It allows for the seal of confession to be maintained in all cases except where a major criminal offence has occurred and the penitent is refusing to go to the authorities.
My Roman Catholic brothers and sisters will continue to argue against this, because of their view that the seal of the confessional is an inviolable element of the sacrament - however I would argue that if a person approaches a priest and confesses a serious offence but has no intention of facing up to what they have done through reporting to the relevant authorities, then they are not genuinely repentant. If they are not genuinely penitent, then the sacrament is not valid and so their is no violation on behalf of the priest who reports the offence.
The simple truth is, If we as the body of Christ are to begin to regain the trust of society we must not fight against provisions such as this which are about protecting the most vulnerable in society. More importantly it is the right thing to do, both morally and theologically.
*Canon Concerning Confessions 1989
Today on the ABC a story was published about domestic violence, which highlighted how over many years the church in various guises and denominations has failed the victims of domestic violence. It makes for harrowing reading – to read of the abuse that women especially have endured because the church has failed to give them guidance, protection and support, and rather encouraged them to stay with their abuser lest they break their marriage covenant.
Firstly, let me be absolutely clear, if your spouse is abusing you, physically, sexually, emotionally or psychologically, then they have broken their marriage covenant with you. You are no longer bound to stay with them, and you should leave – immediately – and get somewhere where you and any children you may have will be safe. When they agreed to marry you your spouse promised, at least if you were married in a Christian wedding, to love, honour and comfort and protect you, and to live with you ‘according to God’s Word’ and the moment they begin to abuse you they have broken that commitment, and thus the marriage covenant.
So why is it that people get this so wrong? Because they rightly want to uphold marriage, as a lifelong commitment – a joining together of a man and a woman which Jesus upheld as something that couldn’t be dissolved except for sexual immorality. However Jesus was dealing with a very specific question about a practice which essentially allowed men to divorce their wives at will, with little justification. In a society where women were viewed as property, and who were reliant on the wealth and protection of either their husband or their father, getting divorced was a big deal – and it was being used as an abuse in itself. Jesus responds in this context and says this abuse of power isn’t allowed – he says unless your wife has committed adultery you have no real basis to throw her out on the street. Does that mean then that a woman must likewise stay with her husband if he is abusing her? Absolutely not! As I said, the moment your spouse is abusive they have broken their marriage covenant with you – you do NOT sin by divorcing an abusive spouse.
The article also deals with issues of patriarchy in the church which may influence how the church has responded to abuse victims. It specifically deals with the doctrine of male headship and how this doctrine espoused in some parts of the church has been twisted and the scriptures it is based on removed from their context and abused in order to justify appalling abuse of women.
I do not want to have a theological debate that will detract from this issue, but I think it is important to say I am an egalitarian, I believe that God sees men and women as equal in ability, talent and value. I believe that God calls both men and women to leadership – both in the home and in the church – based on their individual giftings, talents and abilities.
I understand the position that those who hold the opposite (complementarian) view – who believe that while men and women are equally loved and valued, that they are created by God with specific gender roles in mind, with men called to lead in the home and in the church. I understand how they interpret the scriptures to come to this conclusion, and I understand that their interpretation of those scriptures does not allow for abuse. However, the fact that this view is consistently being used to justify abuse must surely sound alarm bells. If we were to judge this doctrine by the fruit that it is bearing in the lives of men and women, as exposed in this and other articles and research papers, we must surely declare it fundamentally against the will of God. Now I will cop some flack for that statement, the key argument will likely be that it is the abuse of the doctrine that is the problem, not the doctrine itself. That is true – however if I was being facetious, I could equally say that communism isn’t the problem it is just the way it is interpreted and implemented…
As I said above though I am not going to get bogged down in a debate about theology, and I would ask readers to respect that and not seek to engage in the comments in a debate about complementarianism vs egalitarianism, to do so would be to miss the entire point of this very serious issue. Women are being abused, and the church through naivety, through misunderstanding, through incompetence, through misunderstanding marriage and divorce, and yes through the abuse of the doctrine of male headship has been complicit in enabling abuse to continue and even in the deaths of victims of abuse as one heart breaking example in the article pointed out.
We need to face that. We need to make changes to how clergy and other church workers are trained. We need to listen to victims, and we need to believe them. Those parts of the church who insist on holding to the complementarian view of male headship especially need to be taking time to fully explain the doctrine to clergy and to men and women in their churches, so that there can be no confusion and no doubt that headship does not include the right to be abusive and coercive.
I want to finish this by simply saying sorry. As a priest in the Church of God, I am truly and deeply sorry if you or anyone you love has been the victim of abuse and found the church complicit in making that abuse worse. If you are one of my parishioners, know that I will listen, I will believe you and I will not dismiss you. I will do everything I can to support you and I will never tell you to just go home and put up with it.
Fr Daryl is an Anglican priest living in regional New South Wales Australia.