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.
Today is Australia Day. It is a day that our nation has set aside as a day of celebration of who we are, of our freedoms and our history. However, the date that was chosen for this celebration is one that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is the anniversary of when they began to lose their own sovereignty over the land and sea of our great nation and the beginning of dispossession not only of that land and sea, but also of culture and language. It is a day that marked the beginning of the end for many Aboriginal cultures and languages which have now ceased to exist. It is a day that led to the subjugation and murder of people who before then were sovereign rulers of the land the citizens of our country now call home.
With that in mind many people are now calling for the date of Australia Day to be moved, and for January 26 to be made a day of lament or mourning for the injustices which have taken place against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. As an Aboriginal man, whose grandmother was one of the people of the stolen generations, I have a great deal of sympathy with this view - in fact in the past I have put forward the 27th May as an alternative - the date of the 1967 referendum which resulted finally in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being given equal status as citizens of Australia.
That this country needs to acknowledge our past and the effect that it has had (and continues to have) on the first inhabitants of this land is in my mind beyond questioning. The only way that we will be able to move forward as one, strong and united nation is by being willing to own the entirety of our nations history - not just the good bits.
That means that we need to acknowledge that this nation, while having achieved greatness, while being a beacon of freedom and hope, while having great stories of conquering adversity and of exploration and sacrifice leading to the incredible prosperity we enjoy today also has another history that must be acknowledged, a history of dispossession and murder, a history of subjugation and of genocide.
So does that mean that we should change the date? No. Not from my perspective at least - my mind has been changed as I have thought and prayed long and hard on this. I am of the view that while the 26th of January is the date that saw the beginning of a very dark period for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our nation, it is also the date that marked the beginning of the transformation of Australian into the nation we are now. It is also the date on which the conception took place of Australia as the modern, liberal democracy in which we now live - so while it is a day of mourning - it is also a day of celebration.
For me the solution is in transforming Australia Day into a day of both celebration and lament. A day that acknowledges not only the great history of our nation that began on 26th January 1788, but also the incredible story of our nation that existed here for tens of thousands of years before then. What I long for is that Australia Day would be a day on which we could stand together in the morning to remember the devastating effects that the arrival of Europeans had on Aboriginal an Torres Strait Islander people. To stand together and give thanks that despite 2o0 years of policies that sought to destroy Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language, culture and history (children were still being forcibly removed for race based reasons into the 1970's) that we are still here. To stand together as a nation and acknowledge and lament the policies of genocide and the effects these have had and continue to have on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
Then It would be my hope that having stood together in the morning to lament the wrongs of the past, we could stand together in the afternoon to celebrate the great victories and achievements that we have achieved together. It is my hope that we could stand in solidarity and rejoice in our freedom, to give thanks for all the opportunity and incredible wealth (relative to most the world) we enjoy.
For me this is about genuine reconciliation. Genuine reconciliation requires genuine repentance – a genuine desire to turn away from the wrongs of the past and walk a new path. To be able to turn away from the wrongs of the past we need to acknowledge them, we need to acknowledge their ongoing effects. By including both a time of lament for the sins of the past as well as a celebration of what is good in our past – and our future we can make this day a day for all Australians – a day we can truly be proud of.
I want to finish with this prayer. If you would, please join me in praying it:
God of all creation, who formed this great land on which we live. We come before you acknowledging our brokenness, acknowledging that we are all sinners who fall short of your glory. We humbly admit that our nation in its past has been responsible for great crimes against the first peoples of this land. We acknowledge that great harm was done, and the consequences of that are still being felt even now. Gracious Lord, we submit on behalf of our nation the blood of Christ as we turn to you in sorrow and repentance and ask forgiveness for the wrongs done by those who preceded us - bring us to full reconciliation father both with you and with each other.
Loving Lord having acknowledged our sin, we turn to you and give thanks for Australia – we give thanks for our freedom – freedom which is so valued, and yet so rare in this world. We give thanks for those who have built our nation, we give thanks for the incredible wealth and prosperity that we have. We pray your blessing on those who have been called to lead us, that they would do so honourably and justly. We also pray Father that we as a nation would use the incredible wealth and privilege that we have been afforded for the benefit of all – that we would be a nation of generous spirit and open hearts.
Finally Father we pray that you would pour forth your Spirit and bring about renewal and revival in our nation, that we would be a beacon of the hope, justice, love and forgiveness that comes only through Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
 The definition of genocide in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) is "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part1 ; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group." (http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/pdf/osapg_analysis_framework.pdf )
Today I read an article published on the Brisbane Times' website which tells of the 'Horrifying' lessons that children are being taught in Brisbane schools. The example the author Hugh Harris gives is of children being asked to act out the story of David and Goliath which includes the fight in which David defeats Goliath with his sling and then cuts off his head ( see 1 Samuel 17:48-51)
This, Mr Harris claims, is horrifying - I assume because in his view it is glorifying violence given his statement:
'Many would question the relevance of such a message today, and whether 10-year-old children benefit from acting out scenes of horrifying violence.
This is despite including references from the curriculum in question which reminds SRE teachers to keep children focused and sensible and notes that the main purpose of the lesson is to show that "through Jesus, David's descendant, God would save his people forever from their greatest enemies - sin, death and Satan". There is no glorification of violence it is simply using drama to help children to learn and remember the lesson.
Of course if asking children to act out violent scenes in the context of a wider lesson is 'horrifying' as Mr Harris asserts then we have some major changes to make to the broader education curriculum! We will need to start with removing traditional songs and skits from the pre-school environment - I am thinking first of all of course of the incredibly violent song 'Three Blind mice' where the horrible farmers wife cuts off their tails... then of course there is that primary school staple 'To Market To Market Went My Brother Jim' where poor Jim ends up dead due to being violently killed with a can of tomatoes... and the frightful 'Flying Purple People Eater' - no further comment required there surely! Then don't even get me started on Shakespeare! Suicidal teenagers, murderous royals... Of course none of these are a problem for Mr Harris though, all of that violence isn't horrifying at all - after all they aren't relevant to his personal agenda.
Mr Harris then goes on to note that:
Connect's syllabus uses a fundamentalist "sin and salvation" theme, which was developed by the evangelical Sydney Anglicans.'
Of course the curriculum may well have been created by the 'Sydney Anglicans' however the idea that 'sin and salvation' is a fundamentalist theme - or indeed that Sydney Anglicans are 'Fundamentalists' is a bit ridiculous.
The whole message of Christianity is and has been for the past two thousand years that all of humanity are sinners - that sin is what separates us from God and that the only way for that sin to be forgiven and for us to be reconciled to our creator is through the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross.
That is not fundamentalism - it is the basic message of scripture and I would honestly struggle to see how anyone who objects to it could be called a Christian.
Of course the biggest problem that is exposed through articles like this one is the incredible religious illiteracy in the media - Mr Harris says for example that many parents may find it disturbing for their children be asked 'who is a sinner here in this classroom' . Of course the answer is everyone!
The question then is whether that is a horrible fundamentalist thing to be teaching children. Is it wrong to teach them that everyone is in the same boat? That everyone does the wrong thing, that everyone offends against God. Is it wrong to point out to them that because Jesus came even though they are all sinners everyone can be forgiven? That if they trust in Jesus, no matter what they have done - no matter how bad they think it is - they can be forgiven? That is the Christian message - the Gospel - that Jesus died on the cross to take the consequence for sin on himself so that we don't have to. That he rose again and conquered death enabling us to enter eternal life. That is not fundamentalism, it is Christianity 101.
Of course perhaps most importantly all of this sensationalist propaganda from Mr Harris overlooks one important thing - SRE is not compulsory! If parents don't want their children to attend scripture, all they need do is say so!
There is a lot of talk in the media of late regarding the fate of the 267 asylum seekers who are facing deportation back to offshore detention on Nauru. There is much debate within the Australian community regarding the fate of those seeking asylum and whether or not offshore detention is the best way to deter asylum seekers from taking dangerous journey's by boat in order to reach Australia.
The harsh measures that have been implemented by the government and which are supported by the opposition certainly have been effective in deterring asylum seekers from taking the risk and getting on a boat. Since its inception the governments policy of offshore detention, nil prospect of settlement in Australia, and turning boats back, has brought the boat arrivals to a screaming halt. So that should be it then shouldn't it? It works as a deterrent and as a result lives aren't being risked at sea - surely this is a wonderful achievement!
Of course it all looks fantastic on the surface - until we dig a little deeper... When we begin to dig into the consequences being suffered by those who have been put into offshore detention we see the dark side of the current policy. I invite you to read carefully and consider the implications of the Human Rights Commission's report into children in detention. I will post the summary below, but here is a snap shot:
From January 2013 to March 2014 the following incidents were reporting as occurring in detention centres where children were held:
Mandatory detention has been demonstrated to have a devastating effect on children and adults in terms of their health, (both physical and mental) and education. There have been continuing reports of abuse and appalling conditions and for this reason it cannot be viewed as a suitable way forward in deterring asylum seekers getting on boats.
As a Christian I cannot simply go with the notion that the end justifies the means. I cannot agree with the idea that it is ok to subject a group of people to conditions which endanger their health and even their lives in order to deter others from getting on a boat on which they may be injured or die.
So what is the way forward? Well there is no clear solution, the only way to stop refugees seeking asylum is to end all war, famine, disease and persecution. For that outcome I pray come Lord Jesus. However in the interim we need to find a way forward that both deters people from getting on boats and risking their lives but also treats all people with love, compassion and dignity. I would suggest using some of the money we are spending in locking people up in other countries on adequately funding refugee processing and resettlement in Indonesia. If people could be processed and settled in 12 months or less instead of the up to 10 years it currently takes, they wouldn't need to risk a boat journey out of desperation to ensure a future for themselves and their children. Through adequately funding processing and increasing our humanitarian intake we could destroy the people smuggling trade and also bring hope to thousands.
The way forward is simply to follow God's Word to welcome the stranger with love and compassion (Hebrews 13: 1, Romans 12:13, Deuteronomy 10: 19, Leviticus 19:34) not to subject them to fear, pain and suffering (Matthew 25:40, Romans 13:10).
Below is the summary fact sheet from the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014. It was sourced from here.
Fr Daryl is an Anglican priest living in regional New South Wales Australia. Learn more on the About page.