Australia’s five archbishops said they would consider asking the Vatican for clarification on concerns raised in a government inquiry into sexual abuse of children in the church.
Among those concerns were whether the seal of confession includes
only the sins confessed, not other information revealed in confession,
and under what circumstances — specifically concerning an abuser — a
priest could withhold absolution.
Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide said the permanent committee of
the bishops’ conference would meet in early March to set the agenda for
its May meeting. If the full conference approved, documentation could be
sent to Pope Francis after the May meeting, asking the pope “to
expedite it and deal with it,” Wilson said.
“These are two very specific issues where 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.
Wilson and Costelloe were among five archbishops who testified to the
Royal Commission of Inquiry into Institutional Responses to Child
Sexual Abuse on February 23 and 24, the final two days of three weeks of
The commission — which has spent nearly four years hearing testimony,
including from victims of abuse — heard from a wide range of witnesses,
including scholars, doctors, theologians and members of the Pontifical
Commission for the Protection of Minors. It is expected to issue a final
report by the end of this year.
One of the commissioners, Robert Fitzgerald, summarized the dilemma
faced by church leaders: “Isn’t the reality that you have two sacred
obligations that are now in conflict? 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.
In a sense, the church is in a dilemma, a dilemma that it equally
wishes to protect children and equally wishes to maintain the seal of
All of the archbishops agreed it was a dilemma, but not all agreed on how they would handle certain situations.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said he would be prepared to
withhold absolution in certain cases involving sexual abuse of children,
but “it would need to be handled skillfully and sensitively.”
Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne said he would withhold absolution
unless the person confessing “would go to the authorities or seek
medical help or something like that.”
But Archbishop Anthony Fisher said he would “exhort them” to turn
themselves in to police and to get “medical, psychological, psychiatric
help,” but said, “I don’t think I can make a condition of absolution
that a person incriminate themselves.”
A recurring question throughout the three weeks was whether celibacy —
a promise not to marry — was a contributing factor in priests and
religious abusing children. Several of the archbishops said if a person
did not have the capacity to accept celibacy, perhaps they should not be
priests, and they acknowledged that inadequacies in formation could be
contributing factors to abuse.
However, they noted that seminary formation and vocational
discernment had changed, especially in the last decades, as church
leaders gained a greater understanding of the nature of abusive
However, Fisher pointed out the evidence from social science that the great majority of child abuse occurs within families.
“So clearly it’s not just a problem for celibates,” he said. “And I
think people can hide behind celibacy and the clerical state; they can
hide behind marriage and the family state. People, predators, can use
these situations in awful ways.
“I think that in Australia today, we now know that 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 as
a hazard to the public,” he said.
“So it’s not something about celibacy or sexuality per se that makes
you a risk to children or to vulnerable adults for that matter. It is
about have you learned to integrate sexuality into the rest of your
state, whether it’s a priestly religious life or a married life or a
professional single life.”
During the initial hearings on February 6, the commission reported on
summary data showing that between January 1980 and February 2015, 4,444
people made allegations of child sexual abuse that related to more than
The statistics did not differentiate between allegations and proven cases.
At the end of the final day of the hearings, Hart, president of the
bishops’ conference, reiterated his apologies to the victims, “to all
those who’ve suffered, to their families, to those who continue to
suffer, because it’s a terrible, terrible scourge in the life of the
church and of the community.”
The archbishop, who with his colleagues acknowledged
on February 23 that the abuse of children in the church was “a
catastrophic failure in many respects, but primarily in leadership,”
also thanked the commission for forcing “us to look so closely at what
the church needs to be.”
Afterward, he issued a statement making “this commitment to the
survivors of child sexual abuse, the Catholic and broader community: I
will 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.”