Australian Archbishops Debate Seal of Confession

Source: FSSPX News

The seal of confession covers the sins and what may lead to the disclosure of a sin. (Photo credit:

If approved by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, documentation might be sent to Pope Francis asking him to clarify the questions of the seal of Confession and the civil justice requirements.

A government investigation of sexual abuse of children by clergy, religious and employees of the Church has focused the attention of Australia’s five archbishops on questions about the seal of confession and the possibility of withholding absolution. In early March the permanent committee of Australian Catholic Bishops Conference was to set the agenda for its May 2017 meeting, according to a CNS report dated February 27. Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide said that, if approved by the full conference, documentation might be sent to Pope Francis asking him to clarify the sacramental questions and “to expedite [the issue] and deal with it.”

The concerns of the Australian prelates boil down to two questions: Does the seal of confession pertain only to the sins confessed, or does it also protect other information revealed in confession? Under what circumstances could a priest withhold absolution from an abuser?

Moral theology teaches that the seal of confession covers the sins and any other things that, without being themselves sinful, may lead to the disclosure of a sin or of its gravity. The absolute discretion one expects from the priest for what has been entrusted in the confession is of capital importance for the trust needed to approach the confessional.

Royal Commission of Inquiry

“The Church must do more work at clarifying its own position so that those of us who are responsible for the formation of priests can make sure that our priests are properly educated in these matters,” said Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth. Archbishops Wilson and Costelloe and three other Australian prelates testified to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse at the conclusion of three weeks of public hearings. The commission, formed in 2013, has spent years hearing testimony from victims of abuse and expert witnesses, including scholars, doctors, theologians and members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Its final report is expected by the end of 2017.

One of the commissioners, Robert Fitzgerald, framed the dilemma faced by Church leaders as a conflict of “sacred obligations.”

You have the sacred duty to protect children based on Scripture, the Church's teachings and its commitments to civil authorities. And you have an equally sacred commitment to the seal of confession.”

May a Confessor Withhold Absolution?

The prelates disagree on how to deal with certain situations. Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said he would be ready to withhold absolution in certain cases involving sexual abuse of children, but that “it would need to be handled skillfully and sensitively.” Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne said he would grant absolution only if the penitent “would go to the authorities or seek medical help[.]” Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney said he would “exhort” the abuser to turn himself in to the police and to get “medical, psychological, psychiatric help,” but qualified this by adding, “I don’t think I can make a condition of absolution that a person incriminate themselves.”

Celibacy an Underlying Cause?

The Royal Commission kept returning to the question of whether celibacy was a contributing factor in sexual abuse by priests and religious. Several archbishops acknowledged that inadequate formation could be a contributing factor. Archbishop Fisher pointed out evidence from social science that the great majority of child abuse occurs within families, “so clearly it’s not just a problem for celibates....The majority of Australians of marriageable age are now not married, and many of those are not sexually active at any particular time. We don’t regard those [persons] as a hazard to the public,” he said. The crucial question, he added is: “Have you learned to integrate sexuality into the rest of your state [in life]?”

The Bishops’ Firm Purpose of Amendment

On the final day of the hearings, Archbishop Hart, president of the Bishops’ Conference, reiterated his apologies to the victims and their families. Together with his colleagues he acknowledged on February 23 that the abuse of children by Catholic clergy, religious and employees was “a catastrophic failure in many respects, but primarily in leadership”. They thanked the Commission for forcing them “to look so closely at what the Church needs to be.” After the hearings Hart issued a statement pledging to:

do all within my power to ensure the abuse of the past never happens again, that the reforms my fellow bishops and religious leaders have endorsed over the past years will be implemented. I reiterate that the Catholic Church in Australia will continue to support the survivors of child sexual abuse.”

Sources: National Catholic Reporter/Catholic News Service