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
Fr Daryl is an Anglican priest living in regional New South Wales Australia.