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Why the Catholic seal of confession must be broken - a personal plea


Catholic canon law must not come before the need to protect children, argues minister Rob MacPherson, who revealed his abuse by a church leader under the seal of confession – and suffered as his abuser continued to hold a position of influence in his parish.

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The refusal of the Catholic Church in Adelaide to obey new South Australian child protection laws coming into force in October, seeks to place the church’s canon law above human law and the welfare of children.

Under the church’s seal of confidentiality, if an individual seeks absolution for child sexual abuse in confession, the confessor priest is forbidden from divulging this. Likewise, if a child “confesses” to having been abused, the priest must obey the “seal of the confessional”. Full stop.

In the wake of the Royal Commission and the trial of Archbishop Philip Wilson, this stance seems especially tone-deaf.

Last week, I wrote to Acting Archbishop of Adelaide Greg O’Kelly beseeching him to reconsider his opposition to the new SA law mandating the reporting of child sexual abuse, which will include admissions that priests hear in the confessional. My letter was not motivated by the tone or even the substance of church law, but from personal experience of the harm caused by the sealed confessional.

I was nine years old when a Catholic church deacon violently raped me. Back then, my whole world was the parish, its church, and its school. Feeling that I was somehow complicit in the abuse – as many victims do – I sought absolution by confessing the “sin” of having sex.

I felt my immortal soul was in peril and was bursting for forgiveness.

Tragically, my confession did remain sealed because the crime went unreported and the perpetrator remained in place. For years, I had to go about daily life in the parish under the knowing eye of my abuser.

I won’t burden readers with the psychological and indeed physiological effects of this deep trauma and the PTSD that followed. Suffice to say, that I under-achieved in all aspects of my life – in intimate relationships in particular – until I was far away from the church.

As the poet Alexander Pope says: “As the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.”

When an institution becomes more important than the humanity it serves, it becomes an idol.

The cost of the confessional seal can be measured in decades of my life, in incomplete relationships, in addictive behaviours, and a lingering awareness of never having lived up to the human potential of my one and only life.

Fortunately, I have had 15 years of excellent recovery thanks to superb psychologists, therapists, and a sound public health system. I am fine with speaking about it now.

Yet, had mandatory reporting applied at the time and place of my abuse, I could have started on the path of healing earlier – and my abuser brought to justice.

Church practices – including the practice of confession – have changed many times in history.

Until about the sixth century, confession in the Church was public. Private, sealed confession has been the general practice only since about the 11th century.

But where there are secrets given and kept, there is the potential for abuses of power by those who hold “the goods” on you.

Abuses of the sealed confessional by priests have included outright bribery, sexual coercion, and political influence. Along with indulgences, it was one of the institutional corruptions which prompted the Protestant Reformation itself.

The arguments to keep the confessional sealed are a mix of myopia and sophistry.

Some have said that if the confessional is not sealed, no-one will confess. This ignores children who – like me at nine years of age – have nowhere else to turn.

Others suggest the priest could address such matters outside the confessional. Then what, pray, is the point of sealing confession at all?

I cannot see how these arguments avail or offer justice, let alone compassion for victims.

This grown child’s prayer is that he will relent in his defence of the indefensible.

I know Greg O’Kelly as an intelligent, wise and compassionate man, having worked for him nearly 20 years ago. Indeed, I moved to Adelaide from the UK to become Director of Creative Arts at St. Ignatius College precisely because I found him an impressive man with true moral authority. He remains the best ‘boss’ I’ve ever had.

These personal qualities make his recent on-record refusal to abide by new laws mandating the reporting of child sexual abuse so perplexing.

My aim is not to attack the bishop personally nor to seek revenge upon the Catholic church. It is simply to prevent the concealment of further abuse through an antiquated practice that has had its day.

My own experience pales against that of unborn generations of children who may suffer abuse and seek to confess it.

I have appealed to Bishop O’Kelly to use his position, at this moment in history, in this small state, not to forsake canon law, but to use his position and intelligence to nuance and improve upon it.

I am not insensible to the pressure Bishop O’Kelly is under as an Acting Archbishop in a time of scandal, waning affiliation, and very public controversy. But it is precisely in an acting role, toward the end of his distinguished career, that his position equips him to make a stand for institutional transparency and the justice and healing that may come from it.

This grown child’s prayer is that he will relent in his defence of the indefensible. Simply: the sealed confessional enables abuse. When an institution becomes more important than the humanity it serves, it becomes an idol. Is not preferencing the flourishing of children the teaching of Christ himself?

Rev. Rob MacPherson is the Minister of the Unitarian Church of SA, and President of the Australia New Zealand Unitarian Universalist Association. His addresses are podcast on Expanding Horizons. He blogs at Will Preach for Food. You can hear Rob interviewed by Hamish MacDonald on ABC Radio National.

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