Removing the inviolability of the seal of confession in law would be unproductive, writes Fr Bill Uren in Eureka Street.
Next week the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to the Sexual Abuse of Children is scheduled to deliver its final report and is likely to recommend that the seal of confession should no longer be regarded in law as inviolable.
The horrific revelations of the royal commission and the realisation of both the long-term effects of the sexual abuse of children and the addictive nature of pedophilia have led to a reassessment of the legitimacy of this exemption.
Not only the royal commission but also many members of the community — and not only those hostile to religion — now think that such an exemption from the onus of reporting should no longer be accorded to priests, the perpetrators and their victims.
First, let me say that I have been a priest for almost 50 years, and I have never heard the confession of a pedophile.
Pedophiles are notoriously extraordinarily secretive, and it is unlikely, even with the seal of confession still being operative, that they would expose themselves to the remotest possibility of being identified through the sacrament of reconciliation.
I further suspect that, if the seal of confession is no longer exempt in law, pedophiles are even less likely to reveal themselves as perpetrators in confession.
The belief which surfaced at the royal commission that priests normally know who their penitents are and could reveal their identities to the police is naïve. Only when confessions are conducted in a public space or face-to-face would it be possible for a priest to identify a penitent.
I doubt whether pedophiles, even if they were to go to confession, would do so in any other but a dark and non-identifying context.
I know that all priests of my acquaintance will rather go to jail than violate the seal. I cannot then see that no longer exempting the seal will be anything but unproductive.
Perpetrators will be less likely to go to confession and priests will go to jail.
– Fr Bill Uren SJ AO is Rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne.
Seal of confession should remain inviolate (Eureka Street)