OPINION: Confessing their sins

OPINION: Confessing their sins

DID the Hunter pedophile priest Father Vince Ryan ever confess his crimes in the Catholic Church’s confessional?
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At any time from his first known sexual assault of a boy in 1971 until his arrest 25 years later did Fr Ryan seek his church’s absolution from any of the 73 child sexual offences he’s since admitted?

That question raises difficult issues for the Catholic Church, the community and Fr Ryan’s 29 victims, issues that have become especially difficult in South Australia since a state parliamentarian introduced a bill last month that would require priests to report child abuse.

Nick Xenophon, the No Pokies MP, wants ministers of religion included in laws that require people such as teachers, doctors and psychologists to report suspicions of child abuse to police immediately.

NSW’s mandatory-reporting law makes no mention of clergy or religious services, even when they’re dealing with children, although the Crimes Act’s offence of “Concealing serious indictable offence” and child abuse is an indictable offence does not exclude clergy.

However, the NSW Attorney-General’s Office tells me that the exclusions are preserved in common law, which is the term used to describe law set by precedent in the courts. I understand that specific legislation would override common law.

Mr Xenophon’s bill would cover clergy who hear confessions, and that is its most sensitive aspect. Catholic priests hear confessions, called reconciliation these days, and issue absolution in a formal structure, and reconciliation is an important, even vital, part of the religion.

The risk of dying with unforgiven mortal (serious) sin, and thus taking the descending rather than ascending stairs, is no slight matter.

Anglican ministers hear confessions in a much less formal way, and while the confidentiality of Catholic reconciliation is sacrosanct it is not always so in the Anglican case.

In 1997 the Anglican Church’s Sydney diocese overturned a 1993 church rule preventing clergy breaching confessional confidence under any circumstance, reverting to an arrangement that allows Anglican ministers to report confessions of criminal acts.

There appears to be some onus on these ministers to report criminal acts if they believe the community is at risk.

Risk to the community has no weight in the Catholic Church’s guarantee of secrecy, which maintains that the confession is to God, not to the priest.

But the priest does hear the confession, and he may discuss the sin and its circumstances before issuing absolution. He may not know the identity of the person making the confession, and sometimes reconciliation is in a group setting without the disclosure of sins.

In one-on-one reconciliation the priest may hear that the member of his flock has murdered someone, sexually abused a child, or spoken ill of a friend, and with absolution and perhaps penance of prayer that person will emerge unburdened by sin.

It is likely that this absolution helps serious offenders live with their guilt, that it allows, for example, a priest to live with his recurrent pedophilia. Why cannot a priest make it a condition of absolution that the offender report the crime to police?

The church says that the secrecy of reconciliation is a church member’s right, which has the church putting that individual right above the community’s rights and the rights of victims. It will say, too, that mandatory reporting would discourage serious offenders from seeking absolution, a possibility that will matter little to the wider community.

But why cannot the priest offer God’s absolution and call the police? Both God and the community can then require penance.

Like Mr Xenophon, I can’t see how confidentiality for people who sexually assault children, and for that matter commit serious crime, is a matter for any group other than the entire community.

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