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More than 2000 Australia priests reject breaking seal of confession

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Sacrosanct moment: Penitents wait in line to receive the sacrament of Penance. Clergy advocacy groups representing more than 2000 priests across Australia have rejected outright breaking the seal of confession, even if it becomes law in some states and territories. Photo: CNS

CLERGY advocacy groups representing more than 2000 priests across Australia have rejected outright breaking the seal of confession, even if it becomes law in some states and territories.

The National Council of Priests of Australia, with 1700 members, rejects new laws announced in South Australia, Tasmania, the ACT and Western Australia –which would require priests to break the seal of confession in cases relating to child abuse.

NCPA chairman Fr Jim Clarke, a canon lawyer and parish priest of St Mary of the Angels in Geelong, said his members stood firmly behind the practice and tradition of the Church.

“The sacramental seal is inviolable. No priest can break that sacred trust,” he said.

“When priests sit and hear the confessions of parishioners they are sitting as the Lord, through the ministry of the Church.

“We hold that to be a sacred trust as part of our ordination commitments.

“So we are against any movement by any civil authority to expect priests to divulge anything from a penitent.”

Brisbane parish priest Fr Scot Armstrong, who chairs the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, representing 600 priests, said the new laws would not help protect children.

Fr Armstrong said his ­organisation’s executive ­regarded the new laws as impractical as well as unacceptable in principle.

They attempted, erroneously, to link confession with a culture of ­concealment.

“If, for example, the penitent confesses from behind a screen, how can the confessor know for certain who is confessing? Or, how can the penitent be certain the confessing priest is who he or she thinks he is? Or, how will a conviction beyond reasonable doubt be secured except by police entrapment?” he said.

“Priests cannot and will not follow such a law.

“The intention to protect children and vulnerable adults is thwarted by the ill-judged nature of the legislation which ­indicates a radically inadequate understanding of the sacrament.’’

Fr Clarke agreed, noting that the psychological profile of a child sex abuser meant they would be highly unlikely to confess their sin before a priest, “because a bona fide sexual abuser does not believe they are doing anything wrong”.

“That is the pathology of their illness,” he said.

Fr Clarke said that if a confession of child sexual abuse was ever made to a priest, the priest would have a clear course of action – saying to the penitent: “Before I give you absolution you must report yourself to the police and if you want I will accompany you, and you can tell the police what you told me.”

Fr Clarke said it was important to understand that “the seal of confession only adheres to sin”.

“So if someone comes into the confessional and starts to confess their wrongdoing then that is covered by the sacramental seal,” he said.

“But if a person came into the confessional, say a young child, came in and said ‘Father, my uncle is doing things to me that I am not happy about’, now that child is not confessing a sin; that child is speaking about their uncle.

“So that information is not covered by the sacramental seal.”

Fr Clarke said the priest would be right to ask the child to talk to him afterwards, outside the confessional, and to take appropriate action, “because the child is the victim of someone else’s sin”.

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