Catholic priests have said they are “willing to go to jail” rather than violate the Seal of Confession after Australian states and territories pass and consider laws forcing them to break the confessional seal to report abusers.
“The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” – Code of Canon Law 983 §1
Early last month, the Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory passed a bill extending mandatory reporting of child abuse in Canberra to churches, including the confessional. This law would effectively make it a criminal action for a priest not to break the seal of confession in cases of child abuse, an automatic case of excommunication.
While initially the assembly was supposed to meet with Archbishop Prowse of Canberra to discuss the importance of the seal of confession and the protection of children, the legislature passed the bill before the meeting could take place. Archbishop Prowse denounced the missed opportunity for dialogue, and stated he believed the new law will not contribute to a safer environment for children.
“What sexual abuser would confess to a priest if they thought they would be reported? If the seal is removed, the remote possibility that they would confess and so could be counselled to report is gone.”
Catholic priests in the diocese and around the country have come out and publicly said they would rather be tried and go to jail than violate the sacrality of the seal of confession.
“The state will be requiring us as Catholic priests to commit what we regard as the most serious crime, and I’m not willing to do that.” said Father Michael Whelan, a priest from Saint Patrick’s Church Hill in Sydney.” Father Whelan added that he and other priests would be “willing to go to jail” rather than “commit as what we regard as the most serious crime.”
Archbishop Prowse is hopeful for dialogue with government officials, saying “it is vital we get this right,” and that he supports a reporting plan in general, but not one that would force priests to violate the seal of confession.
“We urge the chief minister to allow the Catholic community into this conversation to ensure we are part of the solution.Together we can ensure the protection of children’s rights and uphold the integrity of our sacraments.”
Historically, four priests have been martyred for protecting the solemnity of the seal of confession. Saints John Nepomucene and Mateo Correa Magallanes along with Fathers Fernando Olmedo Reguera and Felipe Císcar Puig were all killed for not revealing what they had heard during the Sacrament of Penance.