14 November 2012

When a medieval law protects child abusers

In the wake of PM Julia Gillard’s announcement of a royal commission to investigate allegations of institutional child sex abuse, Cardinal George Pell bleated about how the Church was the victim of a smear campaign by the media. He also went on to defend the Seal of Confession, a Catholic sacrament whereby priests are forbidden to divulge the confessions of penitents, calling it “inviolable”. Here is Pell’s suggestion for how priests can avoid being caught between a rock and a hard place:

If the priest knows beforehand about such a situation [of sexual abuse], the priest should refuse to hear the confession. […] That would be my advice, and I would never hear the confession of a priest who is suspected of such a thing.

What an odious, and utterly impotent, piece of advice. Pell is basically telling his underlings that they’re better off turning a deaf ear to possible cases of sexual abuse rather than ‘violating’ a Catholic injunction against snitching. How does refusing to hear the confession of a child abuser help to bring him to justice? To protect innocent children?

Cardinal George Pell

Independent senator Nick Xenophon has called the Seal of Confession “a medieval law that needs to change in the 21st century”, and stated that “Church law, canon law, should not be above the law of the land.” Others agree, as the ABC reports:

New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell, who is a Catholic, says he cannot fathom why priests should not be required to pass on evidence of child abuse to police.
“I think the law of the land when it comes to particularly mandatory reporting around issues to do with children should apply to everyone equally,” Mr O’Farrell told AM.
“How can you possibly, by the continuation of this practice, potentially continue to give... a free pass to people who've engaged in the most heinous of acts?”
Federal Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne, who is also a Catholic, believes criminal law should take priority over church rules when it comes to child abuse.
“If a priest hears in a confessional a crime, especially a crime against a minor, the priest has the responsibility in my view to report that to the appropriate authorities,” Mr Pyne told ABC News.
“In this case the police, because the church nor the priests should be above the law.”

If Australia is to remain true to its secular principles, the laws of any religious body must not take precedence over civil laws. The Catholic Church in particular is notorious for its primary allegiance to the dictates of the Holy See in Rome, and will often give those dictates priority over the laws of the country in which the Church operates. Whether it concerns abortion, contraception or gay marriage, the Church holds its laws to be above those enacted by civil, secular society. Such insolence must not go unchallenged.

Of course, the elephant in the room is that the very idea of the Seal of Confession depends on the belief in ‘sin’, a ludicrous concept that underpins almost every Christian doctrine. Without it, there would be no need for a formal rite of ‘confession’, no need for priests to wrestle with both the demands of morality and the demands of the Church, no need for Pellian loopholes where terrible crimes are ignored to avoid ‘sinning’ by breaking the Seal of Confession. It is the idea of ‘sin’ itself, among other religious dogma, that is the cause of much harm inflicted by the Church.


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