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 the Weekend Australian published an article by Hedley Thomas in which internal and confidential prison reports were 'obtained' by the Weekend Australian. 'Obtained' is a nice way of saying that someone in NT Corrections isn't happy that the organisation has been exposed for its clear abuse of a child over many years and so chose to deliberately leak the documents to the press. You see now we can all see what a terrible young man Dylan Voller is and we can join in a sympathetic cry with those poor corrections staff - clearly they were justified in picking up a small teenage boy and body slamming him into his mattress on the floor. Clearly they were justified in kneeing him and smacking him to the ground. It's not their fault - he is a bad kid...
Apparently it justifies this:
Well here's the thing Hedley Thomas and NT Corrections, I and the rest of the right thinking population of Australia know very well that Dylan Voller has done some pretty bad things in his life - we know that he probably isn't a nice guy to get along with - we've heard how he spat at guards and was verbally abusive. We have even heard that he has been physically abusive. What we also know however is that NONE OF THAT MATTERS. The images we saw on the four corners program were sickening. They depict a child being deliberately, physically abused by Corrections staff. Let me say that again just so I am absolutely crystal clear here - they depict a child being abused.
Now, I am not a child development psychologist, but I am pretty sure that when you have an obviously troubled child being held in a detention facility because they have committed multiple crimes at a young age, it might be best to take time to try and help him. It is not the job of detention centre staff to punish this child - being locked up away from family and friends is his punishment. No, what should be happening is that the child should be receiving counselling, schooling and being shown love care and support. If Dylan Voller had been shown as an 11 year old boy that the world really wasn't against him - that there are people who care and who want to help him, then who knows... he may have come out of that centre reformed, ready to learn and contribute to the world.
He didn't receive love, care and respect though. Instead that 11 year old child was brutally and repeatedly abused. That 11 year old child learnt that the people that were supposed to look after him were monsters, who he could never trust - he learnt that those in authority are a bunch of bastards who will abuse their power and don't care at all about him. This child was shown that no-one cared and the whole world was against him - what then is the point of reforming, why not just give up?
So yes we all know that Dylan has committed crimes - you don't go to detention/prison for helping old ladies cross the street, but let me be very very clear here - he was physically, and psychologically abused whilst he was a child in state care and that cannot ever be justified.
The fact that his private prison notes have been leaked to the press is in my view only further evidence of corruption within NT Corrections and further evidence of the culture of cover up and victim blaming. This cannot continue - it must be stopped.
I want to finish this now with a prayer for Dylan, and for all those children currently being held in detention around our nation and beyond.
Loving Lord, you say in your Word, 'let the children come to me and do not stop them'. Lord we see that there are many many children who stumble, who struggle and who find themselves in a dark place right now as they have been removed from family and friends and all the support they need as a consequence of bad choices and actions.
Father we uphold them to you now, we pray that they would be able to see your light through the darkness, we pray that they would know that whatever they have done, that they are deeply loved, that they can be forgiven and restored and remade as citizens of your kingdom. Father we pray especially for Dylan Voller whom we have learnt about through seeing images of the horrific abuse he suffered at the hands of those meant to be caring for him. We give thanks that in his recent letter released to the public he acknowledged his wrongdoing and sought to make amends - we pray Lord that this repentance is genuine, and that he can come out of prison a new man, but above all we pray for him to find healing, for him to find hope - the genuine healing and hope that can only come through you Lord.
Finally Lord we pray for those who have been involved in the abuse of children in detention, and for those who have conspired with them to cover it up - Lord give them hearts of repentance, and bring them forward to speak honestly about what has happened and to face justice - we do pray Lord that they too would seek to find forgiveness, redemption and hope through you.
We pray all these things in the mighty name of Jesus. AMEN.
Fr Daryl is an Anglican priest living in regional New South Wales Australia.