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Breaking the seal

What if a person confesses to their priest that they are abusing children?

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27 August 2017

Recent debate over whether Parliament should legislate to ensure mandatory reporting for crimes such as child abuse revealed to priests during confession has centered around the two main Christian denominations in this country: the Catholic and Anglican Churches. Nonetheless, the perspective of the Orthodox Church, the second-largest Christian denomination in the world after the Catholic Church and arguably the most venerable, has of yet, not achieved any prominence in the public discourse.

The debate has its origins in the revelations of terrible abuses transpiring primarily within the Catholic Church, the implication being that: 1. Abusers, mainly priests, could obtain 'forgiveness' by confessing their crimes. 2. They could do so with impunity, knowing that their confessor could not reveal their confession to anyone. 3. As a result, having been 'absolved' of their crimes spiritually, they feel free to commit the same crime again, knowing they will once more receive 'absolution.'

Such an implied view of confession, where one merely needs to confess their sins in order to obtain absolution of them, a type of 'automatic forgiveness' is alien to the thinking of the Orthodox Church, whose main perspective is that of God's love for Humanity and in which forgiveness is a process that has to be worked through. In the rite of confession, emphasis is therefore placed upon the need for the penitent to make a full and frank accounting of their transgressions. It is then incumbent upon the confessor-priest to work with the penitent to make them understand why the acts they have confessed to are wrong, and ensure that the penitent truly repents those actions and if necessary, work with the penitent to ensure those actions are not repeated again. In those cases, the priest calls upon God to confer absolution stating: "May God who pardoned David through Nathan the Prophet when he confessed his sins, Peter who wept bitterly for his denial, the harlot weeping at His feet, the publican and the Prodigal; may our same Merciful God forgive you all things, through me a sinner, both in this world and in the world to come, and set you uncondemned before His terrible judgment seat."

Central to the rite of confession is its secrecy. Only the priest can be a witness of the confession before God. The reason for this is that in the Orthodox tradition, it is held that one cannot expect a sincere and complete confession if the penitent has doubts regarding the practice of confidentiality. Consequently, betrayal of the secrecy of confession will lead to canonical punishment of the priest. Thus, the Byzantine Nomocanon states, in Canon 120: "A spiritual father, if he reveals to anyone a sin of one who had confessed receives a penance: he shall be suspended [from serving] for three years, being able to receive Communion only once a month, and must do 100 prostrations every day."

In like manner, Saint John Climacus views confession as an inviolable communication between man and God: "At no time do we find God revealing the sins which have been confessed to Him, lest by making these public knowledge, He should impede those who would confess and so make them incurably sick."

Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite also exhorts the Spiritual Father to keep confessions confidential, stating:
"Nothing else remains after confession, Spiritual Father, except to keep the sins you hear a secret, and to never reveal them, either by word, or by letter, or by a bodily gesture, or by any other sign, even if you are in danger of death, for that which the wise Sirach says applies to you: "Have you heard a word? Let it die with you" meaning, if you heard a secret word, let the word also die along with you, and do not tell it to either a friend of yours or an enemy of yours, for as long as you live." The emphasis here is on providing a confidential environment wherein a transgressor can be healed and rehabilitated spiritually, a process that can be compromised if their crimes are made public knowledge and subject to the judgment of the populace at large, especially when they don't have a stake in the trangressor's rehabilitation.

Yet what if, for argument's sake, a person confesses to their priest that they are abusing children? Can an Orthodox priest break the seal of confession in order to report them to authorities, thus protecting the children in question from further harm? Some Orthodox priests in Australia, noting how few of their parishioners participate in the rite of confession, feel that this eventuality is so remote as to render the question purely academic, yet are concerned at the implications of any legislation, causing conflict with the canons of the Church.

Father George Morelli, an Orthodox priest in America who has written widely on the subject of confession recognises the difficult position mandatory reporting places on priests. He states: "The priest must act out of love and the purity and clarity of his heart, for both the victim or potential victim and the abuser. If the abuser comes to the priest, the priest must attempt to convince the abuser to accept the fact that they have a serious problem and must seek the help that is needed. This may involve emergency hospitalisation or perhaps incarceration."

Regardless of this, the common consensus is that the contents of a confession cannot be revealed. In this circumstance, Orthodox priests, are still under a duty to protect victims from harm in any way they can and this gives rise to complexities and ambiguities in the manner in which the inviolability of confession is balanced with the duty to protect others from such harm.

Some priests try to skirt the issue by discerning what the transgressor is about to confess and informing the alleged abuser that they cannot hear their confession at that time. The ensuing discussion would therefore not be a confession and thus not under the seal.

Father Morelli comments: "If someone slipped by my "intuitive anticipation" and disclosed abuse in Holy Confession, I would withhold absolution and tell the person they are "without absolution" until they report the abuse to the authorities. As a follow up, since the Seal of Confession still holds, I would try and contact the abused and, without violating the confession, do all I can do to protect and guide him to safety."

This of course gives rise to further difficulties of nuance. How much and what information provided to the abused and/or their parents is substantive enough to protect them from harm and yet still does not constitute a violation of the seal of confession? Is it enough to intimate a belief that they are in danger of being abused, without revealing the identity of the abuser? If through the provision of vague information, the person who the priest contacts is able to logically deduce the identity of the abuser, is this a violation of the seal of confession? These questions are all moot at Canon Law. Furthermore, what if all the priest's efforts are ineffective at protecting the victim from harm? Additionally, what happens if a person confesses to a crime of abuse and then returns to confess of a repeat of the crime, again and again?

Ultimately, Father Morelli views a priest's close relationship with his parishioners as paramount in being able to discern problems of this nature, prior to confession:

"If abuse is anticipated, it is actually easier for a priest-licensed mental health practitioner to treat because the disclosure rules can be cited up front before a 'session' or a communication begins. I want to be perfectly clear however, that once Holy Confession has begun, no law . . . can contravene the seal - even to the imprisonment or death of the priest."

Some Orthodox priests, concerned that strict adherence to the Canons fails to protect the vulnerable, have argued around the issue by stating that the imposition of a penance is an intrinsic part of the rite of confession. Consequently, if an abuser confesses his abuse, the priest imposes upon him as penance, the obligation to go to the authorities and turn himself in. If he does not do so, then the rite of confession has not been fully performed and therefore the seal does not hold, allowing the priest to report him to the authorities. From a canonical point of view, though motivated by the best intentions, this approach is problematic, because it scholastically pre-supposes that the penitent's completion of the act of penance completes the rite. Instead, in the Orthodox tradition the completion of penance, though of intrinsic importance to the healing of the sinner, is left up to his own conscience and does not invalidate the rite which gave rise to it.

An articulation of the Orthodox perspective on confession and the difficulties Orthodox priests face in reconciling any mandatory reporting laws with Church Canons is of vital importance if legislators are to assess the effectiveness of the implementation of such laws across the board and will assist in the drafting of laws that will not only respect millennia old religious rites but also will, in collaboration with the churches that hold to the seal of confession, develop sound strategies for the protection of victims of child abuse. In this public process, the voice of the Orthodox and other churches, must be heard and seriously considered.

"Acquire the spirit of peace in the heart and a thousand souls will be saved around you," wrote St Seraphim of Sarov. A Church that through the rite of confession, aspires to bring peace to the abuser and abused, allowing both, through love and in the case of the perpetrator, self-examination, to be healed, offers such a process of reconciliation and rehabilitation that is often beyond the punitive organs of the state. Nonetheless, in addressing the important issue of mandatory reporting, such a perspective must be reconciled with the importance of protecting the most vulnerable members of our society, from harm.

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