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Acts of contrition: Church and state in SA must put children first


A day of reckoning has come for the Catholic Church which will require a rethink of the sacrament of confession and changes to the law by the South Australian Parliament, writes Mal Byrne.

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“O my God, I am very sorry that I sinned against you, because you are so good, and with your help, I will not sin again.”

This is the Act of Contrition that I was taught to say as a child during the sacrament of Confession. It was meant to be an expression of genuine remorse for the sins that you had committed. My understanding was that if the saying of the prayer was not a true expression of remorse, the sins could not be forgiven.

Archbishop Philip Wilson has been convicted of the offence of concealing child abuse. He will probably appeal the conviction and this sad tale will not be over for weeks and probably months. Whether the conviction stands and regardless of the penalty that follows if it does stand, Archbishop Wilson’s reputation and the reputation of the Catholic Church has been damaged irreparably. And yet the same conduct in South Australia does not even attract a charge, let alone conviction. There is no offence of concealment in South Australia even though mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse exists for workers in the health and education system.*

Much of the debate surrounding these matters concern the sanctity of the confessional. My favourite film director, Alfred Hitchcock, made a film in the 1950s called I Confess where a murderer confesses his crime to a priest who subsequently is suspected of having committed the crime himself. The murderer is subsequently caught and everyone lives happily ever after. What seems to be lost by the end is that while the priest continued to keep the murderer’s secret, the murderer commits at least two further murders.

The church justifies the sanctity of the confessional on the basis that people who have committed mortal sins will not come forward and confess their sins and seek absolution unless they know that their communications with the priest are fully confidential. However, if a paedophile confesses his or her crimes to a priest but is unwilling to hand himself over to police and/or seek the treatment or rehabilitation that he or she needs to address the behaviour, what sort of confession is that? Doesn’t it go back to the proper meaning of contrition? Don’t you have to mean what you say?  Don’t have you to be fair dinkum? And if you are not going to be fair dinkum, should you expect the priest to keep your secret and allow you to go on committing harm?

It seems that the day of reckoning has come and it is a question of how long the church will cling to ancient practices that reached their expiry date decades ago.

Paedophiles do not stop harming children because they have been to confession. What they are doing is unburdening themselves to a priest in the hope that they might feel a little bit better but then continue to commit their heinous crimes. There is a difference between confessing something just to get it off your chest and make yourself feel better, and confessing in real terms which means proper atonement for what you have done. In the case of paedophilia, this means being properly accountable by handing yourself in to police, accepting the penalty that is coming to you and trying to reform. If you are not making that type of confession, why should you be protected?

If the sanctity of the confessional is not serving its proper purpose, why should it be a sanctuary for paedophiles? If a paedophile does not truly want to atone, all that paedophile has been provided by way of the said confessional is a macabre chat forum. It is time for the church to say to paedophiles and other serious criminals that unless you are willing to accept the full consequences of your offending, we are not open for or interested in your business. We will show you compassion. We will try and support you, but we will not be the vessel that enables you to hide and escape responsibility for what you have done.

The Catholic Church worldwide and other churches have justifiably paid a heavy price for the culture of secrecy that has allowed paedophilia to flourish within their ranks.  However, that price pales into insignificance when compared with the holocaust of childhood innocence lost over decades of horrific abuse. Whatever happens, it is impossible to see how Archbishop Wilson can keep his job. Other prosecutions may follow. It seems that the day of reckoning has come and it is a question of how long the church will cling to ancient practices that reached their expiry date decades ago.

Similarly, our new State Government and Labour Opposition need to decide whether they are going to get into line with the eastern states and make it an offence to conceal knowledge of child abuse offending. There’s a bottom line here, and it’s that the best interests of children must come first.

Mal Byrne is a partner at Tindall Gask Bentley Lawyers, and is an expert in institutional child sexual abuse claims, having represented many survivors.

Editor’s note: Current laws in South Australia do place mandatory reporting obligations on ministers of religion, except do not require them to divulge information that they receive through a confession. However, the Attorney-General’s Department points out that new laws come into effect in October 2018 which change these mandatory reporting requirements to cover information communicated during a confession. These reporting requirements will also apply to others in the community, such as social workers, educators and police officers.

Mal Byrne stands by his call for a new offence of concealment to be introduced in SA, pointing out that the maximum sentence under the new mandatory reporting laws will be a fine of $10,000, compared to two years’ imprisonment in the case of the NSW concealment law.

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