Genuine Confession is Public

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Today’s newspapers here in Australia are full of the news that the Government has announced an royal commission into the abuse of children in various establishments.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced the creation of a national royal commission into institutional responses to instances of child sexual abuse.

The decision was taken at a meeting of federal cabinet this afternoon.

Ms Gillard had been under pressure to act following growing calls for a national inquiry into explosiveallegations by a senior New South Wales police investigator that the Catholic Church covered up evidence involving paedophile priests.

A number of senior Labor MPs, as well as key independents, had already voiced their support for action on a national scale.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott also declared his support for a “wide-ranging” royal commission into child sex abuse but said it should not just focus on claims involving the Catholic Church.

Ms Gillard said the Government would take the coming weeks to consult stakeholders before announcing the terms of reference.

The Prime Minister said the commission would look at all religious organisations, state care providers, not-for-profit bodies as well as the responses of child service agencies and the police.

Almost immediately (and very predictably) attention has fallen upon the Roman Catholic Church, not least because a senior police officer alleged that the RCC had stymied investigations into abuse.

Mirroring police evidence given to the Victorian inquiry into the Catholic Church launched this year, he says in his letter: “Many police are frustrated by this sinister behaviour which will continue until someone stops it.”

“I can testify from my own experience that the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church. None of that stops at the Victorian border.”

Not all clergy are fully cooperating with police, however the Premier has repeatedly said police have the investigation under control.

But Chief Inspector Fox believes police prosecutions on their own cannot deal with the Catholic Church’s structures and systems for reporting abuse.

“In many cases that I came across, one priest who had previously faced paedophile charges was donating parish money to the legal support of another priest to defend himself from those charges,” he told Lateline.

“I had other priests that hadn’t been charged with anything removing evidence and destroying it before we were able to secure it, and we just went around in circles.

“The greatest frustration is that there is so much power and organisation behind the scenes that police don’t have the powers to be able to go in and seize documents and have them [the church] disclose things to us.”

Chief Inspector Fox says he has “definite information” of alleged cover-ups by a number of diocese bishops.

“It potentially goes even higher than that,” he said.

It’s all a bit of a mess, isn’t it?

One of the main areas of complaint about the Roman Catholic Church has been the unwillingness of some to report incidences of abuse (perpetrated on children or others) to the police. The current state of play in Australia is (and this is a simplification, but still the general approach) that those who work with and care for children as part of their general employment (ie youth workers, teachers, social workers, clergy etc.) are termed a “mandatory reporters”. That is, if they know or think that a child is at risk they are required  to report that risk. Failure to do so risks a criminal prosecution.

However, certain situations where we take counsel mean that technically there are some instances where the reporter has the privilege not  to report if the person involved would be incriminated. This principle of law applies, of course, to lawyers who act as counsel. And also to clergy.

And the Roman Catholic Church has made full use of this from time to time. The most common complaint is that one priest, an abuser, will confess that abuse to another who will offer absolution as part of the sacrament of penance and not report the crime under the privilege of counsel. The abuser goes away reckoning that their sin is dealt with. There is, in the eyes of the world, no justice.

And they’re right. There are 2 basic problems here.

First, the use of the privilege of counsel is inconsistent. It’s fully understandable that legal counsel has this privilege – without it no-one could have a decent defence in court. But in the confessional that simply can’t stand. And the position the RCC takes is unworkable:

Cardinal Pell highlighted reporting procedures, particularly the 1997 Towards Healing protocols, but defended the continuing sanctity of the confessional.

”The seal of confession is inviolable,” he said repeatedly. If a priest knew beforehand of the nature of the confession, though, he should not hear the confession, he said.

Now I trust you see that that makes no sense. How many of us as pastors have had someone say “can I come and talk to you”? We don’t know beforehand what will be confessed to us. How could we possibly? The other question we’re sometimes asked is “if I tell you something, will you keep it a secret?” to which the answer must surely be not “yes” but, “it depends what that something is. What you can be sure of is that I will do what is best for you”.

I would have thought that common sense takes us further – if we do receive a disclosure of such abuse then we commend them for their courage in confessing, explain to them what our obligations are, and let them know that we will go with them to the police and stand with them every step of the way as they take responsibility for their actions.

As already pointed out, in questions of abuse of children we are mandatory reporters. But even if we were not, the “inviolable” seal of the confessional is nonsense – and this brings me to my second point: it’s a theological nonsense.

This point is set out most clearly in a letter in todays Herald:

If someone is truly repentant, why would they object to facing the justice system?

Robert Walker Sutherland

Spot on. And a very important point. Let me rephrase it – if someone is truly repentant, why would they object to their sin being disclosed? Again, this is a theological issue. Let me explain.

One of the great prayer of confession in the Scriptures is the famous Psalm 51. There David confesses his great crimes of adultery and murder. Here’s part of what he says.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

(Psalm 51:12–17 ESV)

David’s response to being forgiven is very public. He “teaches transgressors” and  “sings aloud of your righteousness”, even asking God to open his lips and aid his mouth. The contrite heart of the truly repentant speaks of that forgiveness publicly. There is no way to do so without mentioning your sin.

Not surprisingly, as Jesus confronts people the same reaction is seen. Consider this example,

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”

(Luke 19:8 ESV)

Forgiveness by Jesus led to a public restitution which incontrovertibly involved a public acknowledgement of sin. That’s what the gospel of forgiveness does.

And then there is this wonderful example, perhaps the chief of miscreants…

…though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.

(1 Timothy 1:13–16 ESV)

Again, a public acknowledgement of sin.

On each occasion it is the wonder and glory of being forgiven that frees the sinner to publicly declare their sin – not because they glory in it but because they revel in the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So when a Roman Catholic Priest confesses a sin of the type under review here and then goes away, having been given a penance, with nothing more to do there is a double outrage. Not only has wordly justice (of the right sort) not been done, but even more fundamentally the gospel has not been properly understood. Where is the freedom that comes from being truly forgiven? Where is the public declaration of the righteousness of God so that other transgressors might also know the ways of God and be forgiven? Where is the beginning of the long and difficult yet always hopeful process of reconciliation between sinner and the one sinned against that is the hallmark of the new relationships Jesus brings about within the church? Under the Roman Catholic Church’s current policy these appear not to exist and all because, it has to be said, there is no proper grasp of the amazing liberation that the gospel truly brings.

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Of course, when ever we see sin or a flawed understanding of the gospel in another it ought to lead us to introspection. So let me leave us with 2 questions:

  1. Where do we not fully understand the wonderful forgiveness in the gospel of Jesus so that we are not confident to confess our own sin?
  2. Where do we mistake forgiveness for “out of sight, out of mind”? There is a certain segment of the Church that thinks the grace of God is an excuse to not own the consequences of their sin. If you’ve done the crime then you may have to do the time. None of this dismisses the grace of God in forgiveness (Rom 8:1) – on the contrary it embraces it.
  3. Are we prepared to offer full forgiveness to paedophiles when they confess? Any less is to deny the gospel. I fear that in the months ahead we are going to have to speak clearly on this difficult issue and face the backlash from a society which ranks these crimes amongst the worst. Do we really believe the audacious promises of the gospel?

I’m grateful to be serving in a denomination which, having had it’s own terrible history in these matters, appears to be making every effort to get things right now. It’s gratifying to see these issues properly dealt with and doubly-pleasing that any shame brought to the reputation of Christ by those who claim to serve Him will be dealt with.

But more than that, I’m keen that in all of this there is an opportunity to tell others how wonderful Jesus really is. That He came into the world to save sinners, of whom the paedophile and I are the worst.

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  1. Robin Teo

    I noted this blog entry a while back but came back to read it in proper since last night ABC started airing the documentary called Silence in the House of God. A very intriguing, sad, and controversial documentary about how priests got away from their sins and continued to abuse boys and girls. Most interesting of all is the Popes couldn’t deny they knew nothing of this matter but perhaps had almost the full picture yet did nothing right by the people who were abused nor discipline the Roman Catholic Churches’ leaders. Thanks for this entry.

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