Sex abuse scandal leaves Australian Church, gov’t scrambling for solutions 

Sex abuse scandal leaves Australian Church, gov’t scrambling for solutions 

Credit: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.
Credit: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.

.- In the wake of a major clergy sex abuse scandal and the high-profile, controversial trial and conviction of sex abuse of Cardinal George Pell, government and Church officials in Australia are scrambling for solutions.

Among these proposed or enacted interventions are those that would break with teachings or traditions of the Catholic Church.

One such oft-proposed intervention is the scrapping of the seal of confession, a proposed solution included in the Australian Royal Commission’s report on clergy abuse published last year.

Earlier this month, the Australian states of Victoria and Tasmania passed a law requiring priests to violate the seal of confession if anything in the confession indicated or implicated someone in a case of child sex abuse. The laws add religious leaders to the existing list of mandatory reporters, and failure to report abuse is punishable by time in prison.

Unlike in other countries with similar laws and policies, reports of child abuse made in a sacramental context are no longer exempt and must be reported.

A similar bill is being considered in Queensland, ABC in Australia reported.

If priests were to follow this law, they would be in serious violation of the teachings of the Catholic Church. According to the Code of Canon Law: “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also states that priests are bound to keep confessions secret without exceptions: “Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents' lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the ‘sacramental seal,’ because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains ‘sealed’ by the sacrament.”

Bishops in both Tasmania and Victoria have said that their priests are unable to follow these news laws. The bishops of Australia also defended the seal of confession in their written response to the Royal Commission report last year.

“Personally, I’ll keep the seal,” Archbishop Peter Comensoli during an August 14 interview with ABC Radio Melbourne, shortly after the bill was introduced to the Victorian parliament. The archbishop said that he would urge anyone who confessed to abuse to report themselves to the police. However, a priest is forbidden from ordering a penitent to turn themselves in to the authorities.

Australian priest Fr. Kevin Dillon told ABC radio in Australia that he believes the seal could be changed because the rules of the seal of confession are “not written in scripture” and instead are taken from the tradition of the Church.

In another reaction to the sex abuse crisis, some Catholic officials have said that the formation of seminarians needs to be completely reimagined.

Typically, a seminarian studying to be a priest enters 7-8 year program of classes in philosophy and theology, with focuses on spiritual, human, academic and pastoral formation.

But according to an investigation by The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, using data from the Royal Commission’s investigation, “seminaries had become places where repressed young men would experiment sexually with one another with little consequence, before some of them turned their attention to children in their parish,” The Age reported.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, president of the Australian bishops' conference, told Crux in August 2018 that “In seeking to combat clericalism, we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Clearly, it requires a radical revision of how we recruit and prepare candidates for ordination. Much has changed in our seminaries, but one has to wonder whether seminaries are the place or way to train men for the priesthood now.”

The Age reports that a new “national program of priestly formation” is already being developed and will be considered by the Australian bishop’s conference in November.

One change already announced by Church leaders is that seminarians will be subjected to the same training and screening as other Church officials by the Catholic Professional Standards Ltd, a group that safeguards against child sex abuse through trainings and audits of Catholic bishops, priests and religious. The independent group is chaired by a lay board; its members are the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia.

Sheree Limbrick, chief executive of Catholic Professional Standards Limited, told The Age that a rethinking of seminary formation should also include “ongoing formation, support and supervision” of seminarians and priests, and that the audit process would help hold seminarians and priests accountable.

Francis Sullivan, the previous head of the church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, told The Age that within the Church there are already "quite a lot of conversations about whether the seminary model is fit for purpose any more – that a revamp of the system is long overdue.”

"I think people like Archbishop Mark Coleridge are seriously considering whether the system works or whether there should be more of a focus on seminarians being integrated into academic and parish life," he said.

The Age reports that Coleridge has previously mentioned a possible “apprenticeship model” of formation for seminarians, where they would study the same classes but have a closer relationship with a parish on the ground level. Coleridge declined further comment to The Age on the subject.

Shane Healy, a spokesman for the Melbourne Archdiocese, told The Age there was “no intention” to close the diocesan seminary, Corpus Christi, and that the bishops and leadership of the school were “committed to Corpus Christi College being a place of excellence in the formation of our future priests.”

Tags: Sexual Abuse, Catholic News, Australia, Seal of confession