Can priests be required to break confessional secrecy to clear up abuse cases? This question is currently troubling society and the church in Australia, as church law and political will collide here.
Interviewer: Several Australian states want to legislate Catholic priests to report cases of sexual assault told to them in a confessional situation. It is no coincidence that the controversy in Australia over the secrecy of the confessional has flared up at this time of all times, but a consequence of the abuse scandal there. What exactly was the trigger?
Anian Christoph Wimmer (Germany correspondent for the Catholic News Agency): A massive wave of abuse so rocked the country that then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard set up a "Royal Commission" in 2013. This is a commission with supreme court powers. For four years, the investigated how sexual abuse was possible and took place in all state, social and ecclesiastical institutions, in sports clubs or in the military. The commission has handled tens of thousands of calls and heard thousands of witness statements. In the end, it has proposed a whole catalog of measures.
One of them is that the sacramental seal of confessional secrecy must be broken in cases of abuse, as, by the way, must the privilege of silence of doctors or other professionals. They, too, can no longer invoke it and are no longer allowed to remain silent. They must – and this is the recommendation that is now to be implemented – report cases of abuse to the police.
Interviewer: Where exactly is the seal of confession in danger? They say that it is not only clerics who should not be bound to secrecy. And which states are we talking about exactly, or does it affect the whole country?
Wimmer: Ultimately, all states will likely be affected. Negotiations are underway as to whether and how the states of South Australia and Tasmania in particular, but ultimately also the capital zone around Canberra and later also New South Wales, where Sydney is also located, will implement this recommendation in October.
But talks with the Catholic Church are already taking place in all these states. The Church's arguments are also being listened to very strongly. Which says that the protection of the child and the protection of the seal of confession go hand in hand. He says you don't help anyone by breaking the seal. In reality – and, by the way, this is also said by a psychiatrist from his practical experience, whom the Church is now quoting – a pedophile, a child molester does not go to a priest for confession and then no longer commits his evil deeds. This is not how it happens.
In fact, the protection of a child and is the protection of society from such perpetrators is only possible if these people, if they ever do, even seek a conversation. And there the church possibly plays a productive role, similar to medical doctors or other institutions.
Interviewer: Do the arguments of the bishops in Australia have sufficient weight??
Wimmer: This is no longer the case, as it was perhaps ten, 20, 30 years ago. The church itself is to blame, because it has allowed this abuse, some of which has taken place on a massive scale, especially in institutions where children and those in need of protection were in the hands of representatives of the church – mostly religious priests and clergy – and were abused there.
There are tens of thousands of such cases. You have not only shaken society fundamentally, but also and especially the credibility in the church.
Interviewer: It is certainly hard to get across to angry parents that the Church is saying that you put the secrecy of confession above the protection of children, or?
Wimmer: Exactly. The argumentation cannot be understood by the victims' association, for example. He says this is an important measure.
Conversely, priests say they are willing to go to jail and will not break the seal. Because priests who break the seal of confession are automatically excommunicated. This is canon law.
Interviewer: That sounds hopeless. Do you see an alternative way that would be viable for both sides??
Wimmer: At the moment I still ame that state and church will have to agree in individual cases in Tasmania, South Australia and the ACT, the Australian Capital Territory, whether and how it really makes sense that the wording explicitly – as was the recommendation of the Royal Commission – mentions the sacrament of confession.
On trial is whether priests can in principle be obliged – and then have to make some kind of decision of conscience – whether the conversation in which something about abuse may have been communicated was a confessional conversation and subject to the seal of the sacrament, or was simply a conversation, after which it is then the normal "duty" of every citizen in Australia to report it immediately to the authorities.
Interviewer: Isn't the Vatican also afraid that a precedent could be set in Australia?
Wimmer: If the Vatican is not afraid, it should get it as soon as possible. My observation is that these things that are being worked through socially there can not infrequently then also spill over into Europe, into America and into other Western regions.
I think the problem will also face us – and this is perhaps not a bad thing – in the near future.
The interview was conducted by Jann-Jakob Loos.