"With the seal of confession intact, a paedophile may find a listening ear to assist with the decision to turn himself in. If a law is introduced to say that a priest should reveal a confession, I will disobey the law," writes Fr Frank Brennan SJ.
Like most Australians, I have been appalled and distressed by the revelations before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
I hope this five-year royal commission is able to provide solutions so that institutions are made safe places for children. I am one of those Catholics who has been rocked by the disproportionate number of victims whose assailants have been members of my Church in positions of trust.
Of course, the Church ran more schools and orphanages than most other organisations. But that provides no excuse or justification for what went on. Nor does it provide a complete explanation for the horrific statistics.
It’s now clear that before 1996, most institutions, including Churches, police forces and State child welfare agencies, were insufficiently attentive to the signs of predatory behaviour by paedophiles.
Before 1996, the Catholic Church was a closed, hierarchical, opaque organisation administered by bishops who were more like feudal princes than modern accountable managers.
The clericalist mindset of a celibate male clergy compounded the vulnerability of children preyed on by Church personnel.
Understandably, the royal commission wants to recommend procedures and safeguards for all institutions that deal with children. If the commission’s recommendations are accepted by governments and legislated by parliaments, these institutions will have to comply or accept the legal consequences.
Given the separation of Church and State, the royal commission is not in a position to prescribe changes to Church teaching, discipline, or structures. But it is in a position to prescribe minimum standards of accountability, transparency, and training.
I have no doubt abuse would have been less prevalent in the Catholic Church if some of the bishops were married with their own children or if some of the bishops were women.
The State is not in a position to direct that priesthood and elevation to the episcopacy be available to married men and women. I am one of those Catholics who thinks the Church would be the better for such changes, but most bishops presently think the Church would no longer be “Catholic” if such changes were made.
The State is in a position to direct that an organisation headed by a celibate male priesthood has in place structures and procedures that ensure those men are sufficiently accountable and transparent in their care for children.
Fortunately, with the shortage of priests, there are now more lay people within the Church in positions of authority.