Thursday, 26 April 2018

Covering Up Down Under

Archbishop Denis Hart
Melbourne archbishop says he'd rather go to jail than report child abuse heard in confession | Guardian

This little news item from last August that slipped beneath my radar at the time, highlights the Catholic Church's commitment to defending and protecting children, or more accurately, the complete lack of any such commitment in-so-far as the victims of it's child-abusing clerics are concerned.

It highlights the fact that the first priority of the church is still to protect and defend the abusing priests, despite Pope Francis' crocodile tears and expressions of regret and the fact that Catholic clerics feel they are above the law and entitled to special exemptions. They feel they are operating outside the constraints of society in general and are accountable only to themselves; not a part of the society in which they operate.

In response to the Australian sex abuse Royal Commission's recommendation that priest be compelled to report abusing priests when they learn of the abuse in confession, Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne said he would rather go to prison than report a child-abusing priest to the authorities if the priest revealed it in confession.

However, it is not true, as was reported widely, that Hart said the paedophilia was a spiritual encounter with God via the priest. According to Snopes, this piece of fake news originated with the notorious fake news site, Neon Nettle. In fact, Hart said the confession was a communication with God via the priest.

Child abuse was and is a grotesque abuse of power by Catholic priests and the Catholic Church's complicity in cover-ups and even facilitation of it deserves exposure and condemnation in the strongest terms, but these efforts are hindered rather than helped by lies and distortions. The facts are bad enough without embroidery and enable the church and it's supporters to dismiss genuine news items as fake.

What Archbishop Denis Hart did say, to ABC radio 774 in Melbourne was:

I believe [confession] is an absolute sacrosanct communication of a higher order that priests by nature respect. We are admitting a communication with God is of a higher order. It is a sacred trust. It’s something those who are not Catholics find hard to understand but we believe it is most, most sacred and it’s very much part of us...

Hart also went on to say he believed it unlikely that these abuses would ever happen today and that the confession was “perhaps the only opportunity where a person who has offended or a child who has been hurt can have the opportunity for broader advice,” he said. A child confessing to being abused could be advised to inform a trusted authority figure such as a teacher who is mandated to inform the authorities.

[I] personally ask for forgiveness for the damage [some priests] have done for having sexually abused children. We will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed.

Pope Francis
Despite the astounding complacency Hart shows in claiming it is unlikely that these abuses would happen today, there is of course some truth in the fact that a priest could advise an abused child but where are the safeguards? What is there to ensure the child acts on that advice even if he or she trusts a teacher enough to approach them?

But there is something else underlying the use of the confessional as the point of contact: it assumes the child will feel guilt; that there is something to confess to. The Catholic Church's approach endorses this view. Somehow the victim is guilty and needs to be forgiven. I wonder how many Hail Marys and Our Fathers it takes to remove the guilt of being abused by a priest.

Surely, if the child was seeking advice on what to do this would not be a confession but advice sought in confidence. In that case, there is no confessional seal and no reason the priest could not offer to go to the police with the child and maybe talk to parents and teachers. If the abuser had been named, what is to stop the priest reporting the allegation? What is to stop a priest telling the child that there is no guilt and nothing to confess and inviting the child to discuss the abuse privately on the understanding that the priest will take the allegation to the police, just as a teacher would do if approached by an abused child for advice.

Although apparently trying to support Hart, Father Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest and professor of law at the Australian Catholic University, while saying he too would break the law if it came to it, made a statement which completely undermined Hart's claim that the confession could be a valuable opportunity to advise an abused child. Brennan added:

All I can say is that in 32 years no one has ever come near me and confessed anything like that. And instituting such a law, I say, simply reduces rather than increases the prospect that anyone ever will come and confess that to me.

Hart's complacent argument seems to be that the fact that a priest might come forward to confess his guilt should be enough to stop it happening, since the priest will have accepted his guilt and realised that it was wrong. However, the Royal Commission report rejected this defence, pointing out:

However, we heard evidence of a number of instances where disclosures of child sexual abuse were made in religious confession, by both victims and perpetrators. We are satisfied that confession is a forum where Catholic children have disclosed their sexual abuse and where clergy have disclosed their abusive behaviour in order to deal with their own guilt. We heard evidence that perpetrators who confessed to sexually abusing children went on to reoffend and seek forgiveness again.

Again, the concern is for the spiritual welfare of the abuser. The abuser has confessed and received a penance and feels his guilt had been absolved. Where is the concern for the physical and mental welfare of his victim? Oh, well, they can always come and confess their 'guilt' too - when they've accepted it. Then it will all be sorted out!

And again there is the assumption that clerics under holy orders of the Catholic Church are not accountable to the secular authority in the state in which they operate. That somehow they are entitled to pick and chose which laws to obey and which they can ignore.

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