Why should priestly confessionals be sanctuaries for pedophiles?

Why should priestly confessionals be sanctuaries for pedophiles? January 25, 2020

Christianity has burrowed largely unnoticed into the secular American public square in many, sometimes insidious, ways.

confession catholic church pedophiles secrecy law
Sculpture of a priest and young acolyte, Prague, Czech Republic. (Emilio Labrador, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

And, as I’ll explain further down, such insinuations of faith in public life have also occurred in Australia, as well as elsewhere globally.

Case in point: how the U.S. judicial system routinely accommodates the church-avowed “sanctity” of the Catholic “sacrament” of confession, where believers privately admit their sins to priests.

To be fair, after the Catholic Church’s appallingly broad and worldwide pedophilia scandal first exploded into public consciousness in 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts. U.S. states quickly started narrowing and sometimes jettisoning altogether previous legal privileges of confidentiality granted to private communications between penitents and clergy within confessionals.

Yet, still, in 2020, state laws regarding confessional statements remain distressingly inconsistent, either mandating that clergy report any child sexual abuse admissions in confession or requiring no reporting at all — plus various intricately finessed versions of such laws in between.

Many states try to have it both ways: honoring religious freedom and curbing the rights of clergy to protect children simultaneously.

For example, California is considering legislation that narrows the definition of “penitential communications” to those that are “made in the manner and context that places the clergy member specifically and strictly under a level of confidentiality that is considered inviolate by church doctrine.”

But the proposed bill would newly require priests to officially report any confessional allegations of child sex abuse from other clergy or staff employees of their religious facility. However, communications are allowed to remain confidential and unreported in confessions by others.

The bill also, incongruously, grants everyone the right “to prevent another from disclosing a penitential communication,” which seems to at least partly nullify the reporting requirements.

Still, church leaders worldwide generally contend that all confessional communications should be sacrosanct and remain forever confidential.

They see it like attorney-client privilege but divinely protected, despite the horrendous cost such secrecy has inflicted on children around the world. Church leaders with knowledge of widespread abuse in their churches have routinely chosen to hide it and transfer offenders elsewhere rather than insist on their moral and legal public accountability, as well as the Church’s hierarchy.

In January, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, railed against proposed new legislation that would compel priests in Queensland state to report to authorities all confessions of child abusers. Such a requirement “would ‘limit and unjustly interfere’ with the human rights of Catholics,” he told the Brisbane Times newspaper, even though in-place laws already require such reporting by the state’s teachers, school principals, doctors, nurses and childcare workers

“The proposed legislation would make the priest at this vital point [in the confessional] less a servant of God than an agent of the state,” Coleridge argued in a Times article. “The state would be saying that there is some sin that cannot be forgiven, that God has no part to play in this. … that the sacrament of penance is outlawed.”

Well, in a secular republic as the United States’, “God” should have no part to play in its laws.

Such reporting of abuse should be seen not as government overreach and religious oppression but as a noble expression of our collective, dare we say, sacred civic duty to protect children.

But, as always, religion is seen by the religious as somehow different — sanctified, untouchable, rarified and independent of other human endeavors.

The astounding universality of the church pedophilia scandals, however, has profoundly revealed that Christianity and its “men of the cloth” are all-too-human and touchable, often in the most depraved ways.

To continue to give that now-suspect subset of humanity special privileges to do what they will is not only irresponsible, but irrational.

Nonetheless, we see judicial bodies, especially in America, bending over backwards to accommodate an unearned specialness of the Catholic confessional. Ultimately, this provides loopholes for pedophiles and perverts of various stripes to slide greasily through.

“[The abolition of the sanctity of confessional privacy] would make certain that abusers would never speak of the abuse in the sacramental celebration,” Brisbane’s Cardinal Coleridge told the Times, “and any hope there may have been that they might be led to see the truth of their crime, stop the abuse and report to civil authorities would be lost.”

This hopes — against the lessons of reason and history — that many of these people are redeemable, or even care if they are. In the meantime, children continue to pay the price of our naivete and the centuries-old false assurances of religious hypocrisy.

Codes of concealment are fraught with risk to the body politic, in the U.S. as elsewhere. Americans, young and old, continue to suffer the wages of such ill-advised secrecy in the Catholic Church — with witting and unwitting assistance by our laws.

This is how religion embeds itself in our republic and corrupts its founding intentions.

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