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Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge stands up to protect Catholic confession rights

Matter of faith: The Catholic Church in Queensland is facing the prospect of the State Government outlawing the seal of confession.

STRIPPING Catholics of the seal of confession made priests “less a servant of God than an agent of the state”, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge said in a submission to Queensland Parliament published early in January. 

Archbishop Coleridge was clear – the violation of the seal of confession ran the risk of forbidding the celebration of the sacrament in Queensland. 

“The state would effectively be saying that there is some sin that cannot be forgiven, that God has no part to play in this, that clergy should be agents of the state, that the Sacrament of Penance is outlawed,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

Clergy had died because they refused to submit to the claims of the state and preferred to “defend the rights of the penitent before God and the rights of God before the penitent”, he said.

Archbishop Coleridge said the proposed legislation, which arose as a result of recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, raised “major questions about religious freedom” and was based on a “poor knowledge of how the sacrament actually works in practice”.

He said it limited and unjustly interfered with the human right of Catholics to practise their faith by accessing the sacrament according to the Church’s own discipline.

The Archbishop said protecting a child or vulnerable adult’s right to safety and the right to religious freedom were not at odds.

The seal enabled Catholics to come freely before God, with the priest simply acting in Persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”), to confess their sins.

Archbishop Coleridge said the seal enabled the penitent to approach God in “complete freedom”, and the seal was a guarantee of religious freedom.

“It enables the penitent to speak openly before God, to stand open and honest before God, to hide nothing from the God who sees all and forgives all,” he said.

“It enables penitents to see themselves with the eye of God.”

But without the seal, the Sacrament of Penance would be “no more than a spiritualised counselling session”, the Archbishop said.

He said violation of the seal would also do nothing to make young people safer and enforcement of the legislation was problematic.

There were practical issues like anonymity and ambiguity.

Archbishop Coleridge questioned what it would mean for a priest to report an anonymous abuser to authorities or an abuser who confessed in ambiguous terms like, “I broke the Sixth Commandment” without further detail.

He also pointed to the six experienced priests who sat before the Royal Commission that never in their collective 150 years of experience heard a crime confessed in the confessional.

ABC reported last weekend that a former Rockhampton altar boy, who was allegedly sexually abused by serial paedophile Fr Michael McArdle, said enforced mandatory reporting could have spared his suffering.

Maurice Blackburn lawyer Jed McNamara representing the survivor said an affidavit filed by in 2004 revealed McArdle had confessed 1500 times to 30 different priests over a 25-year period, ABC reported.

Archbishop Coleridge, in his submission to the Queensland parliamentary inquiry, said former priests who had been found guilty of child abuse should not be so readily believed by media when they claimed to have confessed their abuse, when much of their life had been a lie. 

Other submissions by Brisbane Catholics said the law would be “unenforceable” except where “deceitful individuals act as ‘dummy penitents’ in order to report priests”.

These submissions pointed out priests faced “religious persecution by prosecution” because they could not defend themselves in court since they could not use any knowledge gained in confession even to save their life.

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