A Case Apart?

Religious leaders in Western Australia will be compelled to reveal knowledge of child sexual abuse, but the Catholic church is resisting the inclusion of secrets gained through the confessional.

The WA Labor government plans to expand mandatory reporting laws to include all recognised religious leaders who are authorised to conduct worship, services and ceremonies. This includes priests, ministers, imams, rabbis, pastors and Salvation Army officers. The laws already apply to doctors, teachers, nurses, midwives, police and school boarding supervisors.

To be honest, I find this proposed law both untidy and illogical. Although emotionally I regard the sexual abuse of children to be a particularly heinous crime, intellectually I have to conclude that it is just sexual assault like any other and a that a crime is a crime. If priests are to be compelled to report a particular crime made known to them in the confessional then, logically, they should be compelled to report all crime. At the very least, they should be compelled to report any crime which might be committed again, leading to the victim being hurt again or another person being hurt. Basically, I am saying there is no intrinsic difference between, for example, the sexual abuse of children and the sexual abuse of adults, or between the sexual abuse of people and the non-sexual physical abuse of people.

On whether or not the sanctity of the confessional should ever be broken, I have not yet come to a conclusion. It’s a difficult one, both from a philosophical and a practical point of view. For a start, a case could be made that a priest hearing a criminal’s confession has been given the opportunity of persuading him or her to change their ways and that this opportunity would disappear if they were compelled to report to the police authorities anything they are told in confidence, for the simple reason that nobody with a guilty secret would go to confession anymore. On the other hand, people who take advantage of the vulnerable are scum and should not, in a just and caring world, be allowed to get away with it, let alone continue to do it with impunity.

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