Archbishop Phillip Aspinall: Priests ‘Can Report Child Abuse’

The spiritual leader of Australia’s 3.5 million Anglicans, Phillip Aspinall, believes that priests may be able to report child abuse revealed during the rite of confession without breaking the seal of the confessional, putting him at odds with Catholics.   

The Australian reports:

The Anglican Primate says the sanctity of the confessional should be examined by the royal commission into child sexual abuse called this week by Julia Gillard, which he regards as being a decade overdue.

Dr Aspinall’s predecessor as Archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth – who lost his job as governor-general after a scandal erupted over his handling of sex-abuse cases in the diocese – also backed the inquiry.

Dr Hollingworth warned yesterday that the abuse of children was “more widespread than previously thought”, and welcomed the royal commission as an important national initiative and a means to help victims.

Dr Aspinall told The Weekend Australian that pastoral guidelines for Anglican priests already stipulated that anyone who admitted sexually abusing a child during confession would not receive forgiveness unless they agreed to go to the police.

If the penitent refused, the confession was incomplete and, arguably, the seal of the confessional would not apply.

Only specified, senior priests could hear such confessions in the  Anglican Church, Dr Aspinall said. “These priests are specially trained  to require the penitent to report the matter to the police and even go  with them to support them while they do that,” he said.

“If they don’t do that, forgiveness will not be granted to them.”

Dr Aspinall is credited with cleaning house after taking over as  Archbishop of Brisbane in 2002 in the teeth of allegations that the  diocese had failed to deal properly with sex abuse cases in the 1990s  under Dr Hollingworth’s leadership.

Dr Aspinall, who was later elected Primate, said the announcement of a  national royal commission into child abuse came 10 years after he first  asked John Howard to call such an inquiry.

“Of the nearly 3.6 million Australians who call themselves Anglican,  statistically one in four women and one in eight men are victims of  abuse, so it is something that affects our church on many levels,” Dr  Aspinall said in a statement yesterday.

His support for the royal commission to review confessional sanctity  is in sharp contrast to the position of Australia’s most senior  Catholic, George Pell, who this week declared that the confessional was  “inviolable”, even for murder.

The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney said he would not hear the  confession of a pedophile priest if he had prior notice of it, but, were  it made, the seal of the confessional would remain.

In response, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, a Catholic, said he  struggled to understand how such information could not be reported to  police, while federal Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Bill  Shorten called for the royal commission to address priestly privilege.  Interviewed by The Weekend Australian, Dr Aspinall said mandatory  reporting of child sex abuse was policy in the Anglican Church.

He said the rite of confession was less frequently practised by  Anglicans, and was different from what took place in the Catholic  Church.

Senior priests had told him they hadn’t heard a confession for years, let alone one involving child sex abuse.

But he acknowledged that opinion was divided among Anglicans on what the confessional seal covered.

“Some people would say that anything said in a formal confession remains secret and sacrosanct,” Dr Aspinall said.

“Others would say, no, if the penitent has not followed through and  taken the appropriate action and received forgiveness, then the  confession is incomplete and the seal of confession does not apply.

“In that instance the person either reports the matter to the police themselves or the priest is free to do so.”

Asked for his personal view, Dr Aspinall said: “My view is that every  instance of child sexual abuse should be reported to the police.”

In nearly 25 years as a priest, he had never been put in the predicament of hearing the confession of a child abuser.

“I don’t think I ever will, because the reality is child sex abusers  hide what they do; they don’t come forward to reveal it,” Dr Aspinall  said.

Pressed on what he would do if someone confessed such a crime to him  and refused to have it reported to police, he admitted it would pose “a  real dilemma of conscience”.

“My heartfelt conviction is that all these matters should be reported to the police,” he said.

“If I found myself in a position of having to break canon law to do  it, I’m not sure what I would do. But my conscience, I think, would move  me to find a way for … proper action to be taken.”

While Cardinal Pell attacked sections of the media for exaggerating  the incidence of sex abuse by Catholic priests and for vilifying the  church, Dr Aspinall said reporting of the issue had mainly been  reasonable.

He praised the courage of victims in coming forward.

Dr Aspinall conceded that trust in the church had been affected.

“I think people are more shocked when it’s a clergy person or a  church worker who engaged in this behaviour because they have very high  expectations of people in the church,” he said.

“And I think that is right and proper.”



Australian Cardinal: Confessional Seal is Inviolable, Even in Abuse Cases

Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, has said that while the Church will cooperate with a federal commission investigating child abuse, priests will not break the seal of confession.

Someone who confesses sins involving abuse will not be reported to police by his confessor, the cardinal said. He explained that while an admission made outside the confessional would be reported, “the seal of confession is inviolable.”

Cardinal Pell said that if a priest is aware that someone has been guilty of abuse, “the priest should refuse to hear the confession.”

The cardinal said that he welcomed the federal investigation because it will “clear the air” and “separate fact from fiction” regarding the Church’s response to sex-abuse complaints. He has said that media reports have portrayed the Church’s role unfairly.




The Salvation Army Chaplain Who Heard a Confession of Murder, and Told

In the Catholic Herald:

There are about 500 murders a year in this country, which is of course 500 too many – but only a few of them get large-scale media coverage. One such, now come to trial, is the sad case of Joanna Yeates, the details of which are very well known.

Two things strike me in this matter. The first is that it would be far better for all of us, but particularly for Miss Yeates’s family, if certain parts of the trial were held in camera. It is distressing to hear the details of how she was murdered; distressing for us – but for her parents well-night unendurable, I would think. Of course the jury have to hear these details, as they are evidence, but do the rest of us have to know? Is there a legitimate public interest? I do not think so.

The second matter is this, covered by this report in the Daily Telegraph:

While [Tabak] was being held in prison on remand, he admitted for the first time that he had strangled his next-door neighbour, Bristol Crown Court heard.

On Feb 8 he spoke to Peter Brotherton, a voluntary chaplain with the Salvation Army, said the prosecutor, Nigel Lickley QC.

Tabak told him: “I’m going to tell you something that will shock you … I’m going to plead guilty’ … The chaplain asked him “what for?” and Tabak replied: “For the crime that I have done.” When he was asked if he meant “the young lady
in Bristol” he said “yes” and the chaplain asked him: “Are you sorry?” Mr Lickley told the court: “He said he was.”

What this means is that Tabak had a conversation with a prison chaplain, and this conversation is now being used as evidence against him in court. Whether the evidence given by the prison chaplain proves to be important or not, time will tell, but I am surprised, to say the least, that the prison chaplain has volunteered to give evidence against Tabak, if that is indeed the case.

This brings to mind important considerations for us Catholics. What is told a priest under the seal of Confession can never be disclosed without the penitent’s permission. This means that whenever we go to Confession, we can be quite sure that what we say is confidential. I have never heard of a priest who broke the seal of Confession; there has been at least one priest who died rather
than break the seal – the famous St John of Nepomuk, who was hurled off Charles Bridge in Prague by the King of Bohemia because he refused to tell the King the secrets of the Queen’s confession. And quite right too. Catholics have an absolute right to know that their Confessions will never be divulged to anyone.

But quite apart from the seal that protects the confessional secret, there is the ordinary professional confidentiality that binds priests, lawyers, doctors and others. If you tell a priest something that you wish to be treated as confidential, then the priest is bound to keep that to himself. I do not wish to make any judgment about the chaplain to whom Tabak spoke, as I do not know the
full facts of the case, but, if I were a prison chaplain, I would never divulge what went on in private conversations between me and the prisoners. If I did so, the prisoners, I imagine, would not talk to me.

Or am I wrong about this?