Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission and the Catholic confessional sanctity

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The Catholic Church’s systemic abuse of children exposes an immovable, secretive and corrupt medieval hierarchy, which defends its own institution at all costs, says Lyn Bender.

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH is in denial — unwilling to change and clinging to a medieval structure that has done immeasurable damage.

In attempting to protect the institution from its deserved shame, the Catholic Church has betrayed its own teachings and the children in its care.

The shocking evidence given to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has led to the recommendation that priests be mandated to report abuse, including abuse revealed in the confessional.

Leading Catholic clergy say that they are categorically unwilling to break the seal of the confessional.

Yet many other human services are mandated to report abuse.

The Catholic confessional box shares some characteristics with the psychologist’s confessional couch.

The founding father of talking therapy in the 19th Century was neurologist Sigmund Freud. Patients in therapy these days bring all manner of suffering, including grief, guilt, abuse, fear, confusion, rage, the longing for forgiveness and the search for meaning and hope.

In the confessional, children as young as seven and adults of any age may come privately to confess fear and guilt, and to seek comfort, release and forgiveness from a respected father of the Church. As with counselling, confidentiality is guaranteed.

With a notable difference.

Counsellors, along with doctors, teachers and many others who work with children, are mandated (though mandatory requirements may vary across States) to report child sexual abuse.

The ethical code of practice that binds me as a psychologist also permits and makes necessary the breaking of confidentiality when there is a risk of serious harm. In the case of serious threats to self and others, I may inform relevant people to enhance the safety of the client and the community. I have a duty to warn potential victims of threats of harm.

In the 1980s, I began a senior role at a major crisis telephone counselling service. The policy regarding suicide and threats of harm had just changed to conform to the Australian Psychologists Code of Ethical Practice.

Previously, when callers rang saying they had taken an overdose and just wanted to have someone to talk to while they died, this was enabled. It was a terrible burden to expect of volunteer counsellors. Thankfully, the policy was changed and counsellors were trained to work actively with the callers’ ambivalence about suicide and to engage callers to accept help. A system of assessment was in place to enable a call to be traced and an ambulance sent. Lives were saved. The act of calling the service was considered a conscious or unconscious cry for help. There was a duty of care.

Some callers had been traumatised by childhood sexual abuse. It inflicted terrible incalculable pain that kept resurfacing throughout their lives. The damage was sexual and spiritual, as well as a massive betrayal of trust.

Yet in 2017, after:

  • all the anguish and pain revealed through the Royal Commission;
  • thousands of public confessions by distraught victims and their families;
  • the revelations of cover-ups and moving on of paedophile priests;
  • the failure to inform a new parish about an offender’s past history;
  • the shocking, heartbreaking revelations of victims; and
  • the suicide of victims;

After all this, leading Catholic Church authorities seem to have learnt nothing about their need to change.

They haven’t learnt that the secrecy, denial, exceptionalism and cover-ups fostered a culture where abuse was “acceptable”.

They haven’t learnt who they are supposed to protect.

The findings

The perpetrators were protected and the children were left to suffer.

There were 1,880 alleged perpetrators in the Catholic Church — 572 of whom were priests. 4,444 allegations of abuse were reported to Catholic authorities between 1980 and 2015.

Gail Furness SC said in her opening address:

"Children were ignored or worse, punished. Allegations were not investigated. Priests and religious [figures] were moved to parishes or communities that knew nothing of their past offending."

Father Frank Brennan and Archbishop Dennis Hart have vowed to go to gaol to protect the confessional seal — even when sexual abuse is revealed.

Going to gaol may, at first blush, seem a noble stance in the tradition of religious martyrs who have sacrificed themselves rather than renounce an article of faith.

But think about it: this amounts to a willingness to go to gaol that will protect the perpetrator, not the victim. But this “protection” also fails the perpetrator.

Defrocked priest Gerald Ridsale, a convicted serial child abuser, declared that he agreed that abuse revealed at the confessional should be reported.

Ridsdale told the Royal Commission:

"Well, now from my experience and what I've done and the damage that I've done, I'd say yes, definitely yes."

Father Frank Brennan argues that no one would confess if the seal was broken and few now come to confession anyway.

I asked him to think about the professionals who are mandated to intervene and how they do their work.

What is the Church saying to the perpetrators by not intervening actively and reporting the abuse? Or by its "softly, softly" approach?

The perpetrators

Brennan and Hart (in summary) have said to the perpetrators, as an alternative to mandated reporting, Maybe you can go and talk to someone you trust outside the confessional? Or, If you want absolution you must show a firm purpose to amend.

Is the confessional a get-out-of-gaol-free card?

The victims

The victims and their families have been deeply hurt on several levels.

  • first by the abuse and the false care and guidance shown to children — that was actually "grooming";
  • by the secondary trauma of being ignored disbelieved and denied;
  • by the cover-ups and protection of perpetrators; and
  • now, by this declaration of defiance by the Church elders.

These men are of the generation of elders who were around during the decades of abuse. Some maintain that they didn’t know, but many knew or heard rumors. Some were willfully blind. Some actively participated in the abuse and protection of perpetrators. The same pattern of sexual abuse and church cover-ups has been exposed worldwide, implicating knowledge of the abuse at the highest levels. The cover-up mode was sanctioned at the top, until exposure forced acknowledgement.

According to the Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize winning Investigative journalist Mike Rezendes:

"The [Catholic] Church presents itself as a paragon of morality [but] it was systemic and deep corruption ... worldwide."

But now we all know.

Father Frank Brennan is reported as saying that if he goes to gaol it will be because the perpetrator has handed himself in anyway. This is flawed thinking. It may, in fact, mean that victims are finally believed and that someone else has done the work of reporting what he, as a representative of the Church, had failed to do.

The Church needs to listen to victims and to genuinely repent.

Priests who defend the confessional seal at all costs are between a rock and a hard place. If canon law, on the sacrosanct seal, is broken by a priest, he will be excommunicated. If he fails to disclose a confession of abuse, a child’s assault is on his conscience. If he fails to report abuse, he can be prosecuted.

Or, he could just do the right thing and protect the children.

The Catholic Church’s systemic abuse of children exposes an immovable, secretive, corrupt, arrogant, medieval hierarchy. The enormous scale of the abuse says it all.

Lyn Bender is a professional psychologist. You can follow Lyn on Twitter @Lynestel.

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