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Why the seal of the confessional will remain

Frank Brennan |  19 August 2017


The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has published a 2000-page three volume Criminal Justice Report. One of its recommendations is that the states and territories "create a criminal offence of failure to report targeted at child sexual abuse in an institutional context".

xxxxxIf such an offence were created, those of us who work in an institution which cares for children would be required to report to police if we knew, suspected or should have suspected that another adult working in the institution was sexually abusing or had sexually abused a child.

Failure to report could result in a criminal conviction. The commission notes: 'We acknowledge that if this recommendation is implemented then clergy hearing confession may have to decide between complying with the civil law obligation to report and complying with a duty in their role as a confessor.'

Being a priest and a lawyer, I welcome the recommendation of this new criminal offence in most instances, but I will continue to comply with my duty as a confessor.

The public, and not just my fellow Catholics, are entitled to know why.

I am one of those Australians who has been shocked and revolted by the revelations of child sexual abuse at the royal commission.

I had no idea that such abuse was so prevalent in our society.

I am one of those Catholics who is deeply ashamed and numbed by the statistics of abuse in my own Church and the failures, especially before 1996, to deal adequately with reports of abuse.


"Being a priest and a lawyer, I welcome the recommendation of this new criminal offence in most instances, but I will continue to comply with my duty as a confessor."


I welcome the royal commission's spotlight on our society and on my Church.

It is not surprising that the royal commission has looked closely at any distinctively Catholic practice, culture or tradition wondering whether it might be a contributing factor to abuse or cover-up.

Some Australians, including some members of the royal commission and their staff, have suspected that the Catholic practice of confession has contributed to abuse and cover up.

I don't think it has, and that's why I will continue to honour the seal of the confessional.


-- This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.


Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.



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Part 2: However, having said this, in the end, the ‘confession’ issue is also not really a big problem because many sexual abusers of children, especially now, probably do not go to confession about their behaviours/sins. Some may still seek help in the confessional if they are fantasising about sexually acting out with children but have not yet done so, and these people need all assistance, and for them, the confessional is an excellent place to begin, at least. On the other hand, (anecdotal) evidence suggests that some abusers who fear for their souls, have mutually and hideously ‘confessed’ to and ‘absolved’ each other and while this is a complete abomination of the sacrament, it may be satisfactory enough for such men who obviously have a deviant or damaged psyche and spirituality/religion anyway.

Stephen de Weger 20 August 2017

Part 3: So, instead of clergy, especially archbishops martyrially defending the Tradition of the seal of confession, he, and others, rather, should be making 2 things very clear to everyone, and saying loudly and often to abusive clergy, and others who may be considering coming to confession: 1) that mutually abusive clerical confessions do NOT result in the absolution of sins because it is an abomination of the sacrament (if abusive priests are paranoid enough about the state of their souls because of their abuse, to confess it, then they might also be paranoid enough to fear damnation because of, therefore, un-absolved sins); 2) that any absolution of child abuse sins in confession will be completely dependent on the abuser recognising that their ‘sin’ is also as a ‘crime’ and, therefore, an activity that needs to also be ‘confessed’ to the police as well, and/or reported by the priest hearing the confession. If these two points were made loud and clear, there would be no need to go on the martyr trail defending a church Tradition because abusers would probably stop using that Tradition, or, better still, actually use it correctly as set out above. It may also encourage them to seek other forms of professional help instead of merely escapist ‘absolutions’. Also, there would then be a very loud and obvious acclamation from Church leaders that they are more serious about the issue of abused children than, yet again, their sacred Traditions and their structural priesthood, if they actually are, that is.

Stephen de Weger 20 August 2017

Very few Catholics these days go to one-on-one Confession. These days I think most realise that the Sacrament will not 'cure' deep seated addictions. The tendency to paedophilia would, I imagine, still be considered a psychological abberation and its practice something needing treatment which may or may not work. So I guess the most practical thing for the Church to do is to set up a system whereby anyone with that tendency is not selected for ordination nor allowed within the Catholic school system. So far the system has failed due to the woeful leadership of bishops such as the late Ronald Mulkearns of Ballarat. They were good at pomp and ceremony but not proactive leaders. You need someone who leads on the ground not from a desk. How good would our current leaders be here? Aye, there's the rub. I must confess I, for one, am totally underwhelmed.

Edward Fido 20 August 2017

The seal of confession has always seemed to me like the elephant in the cubicle. In principle, it offered a way for priests under suspicion to constrain the bishops in what action they could take and indeed offers an all-too-plausible explanation for why so many of the bishops took the weak and indirect actions that they did with so many miscreants. It seems to me a law requiring priests to break the seal of confession can only be a law in principle. In practice priests would be entirely free to break such a law with clear conscience and little chance of prosecution. What it might do, though, is in some cases dissuade paedophiles from resorting to the tactic of using confession in the way described above, assuming any of them ever makes a remotely honest confession in the first place.

Bill Venables 20 August 2017

Your full article in the SMH a few days ago was the most simple, informative and logically expressed explanation of what the seal of the confessional means in practical terms. All members of the Commission should read it. The threat to the seal by the Law is indeed a toothless tiger. I reckon that if God ever takes sides he is with you on this one, Frank. Keep on meddling !!!

john frawley 21 August 2017

I sympathise with your horror at the scale and scope of what has been uncovered, Frank. I respectfully disagree wtith your stance, but I am trying to understand it. l. am genuinely interested in your thinking as to why the seal of the confessional does not contribute to the abuse of children and subsequent cover up of that abuse. I note the following comment attributed to The Age editorial on 19 August, 2017, from Qld Catholic priest Michael McArdle. He confessed in an affidavit to child abuse, 1500 times to 30 priests over a quarter of a century. He was regularly told to go home and pray, which lifted his guilt 'like a magic wand'. http://www.theage.com.au/comment/the-age-editorial/child-safety-trumps-sanctity-of-catholic-churchs-confessionals-20170818-gxzgtv.html Go and sin no more? How can the confessors stand by the process, which allowed him and empowered him to continue abusing children ? If he had been reported to the police, would they have taken action ? That too is uncertain. As a non-Catholic I am perplexed and deeply saddened. How do you think the seal of the confessional served God and humanity in this instance ?

Barry G 21 August 2017

“I don't think it has….” Principles don’t rely for their existence upon accidents. That no abuser has said that he confessed his sin, and our premise that it is highly unlikely one ever would, is just that, an accident. Justifications for the seal must be sturdy enough to accommodate the case where one does or, as is more likely to be the case, where the penitent is a family member or close associate of the abuser burdened by a knowledge he or she has not acted upon. Does the confessor, by making the forgiveness conditional, palm off to the penitent the responsibility of reporting to the authorities? Does the confessor have no duty of care to the child at risk? Even the anonymity of penitents is an accident as they can choose to face the confessor directly. The voice of a parishioner might be recognised. The justification must withstand a circumstance where the confessor knows who the abuser is. That might mean the Church simply being adamant that because Hell is real, no impediment must be placed between the sinner and forgiveness and therefore there is no duty between the confessor and the child at risk.

Roy Chen Yee 21 August 2017

Confession involves not only acknowledging your sins but also a promise not to sin again, to avoid situations of temptation, and to make restitution to any party you have wronged. Why cannot the clergy put this out there? Many people have the simple-minde3d idea that Catholics believe they are automatically forgiven when they confess.

Brian Wright 21 August 2017

Fr Brennan admirably articulates and upholds what is expected of any Catholic priest:service to God's people and fidelity to the demands of his calling,

John 21 August 2017

“The priest bound by the seal of the confessional can never disclose that Sally stole the jelly beans. But the seal of the confessional does not apply to Sally's revelation of abuse. As a priest, I am at liberty and am subject to the same legal obligations in relation to that revelation as I would be if Sally made the claim to any other adult while walking down Pitt Street.” This example resembles the unreality of theoretical economics. In real life, Sally would be a member of the parish under the age of consent confessing to having sex with her boyfriend, perhaps because of low self-esteem caused by sexual abuse by an adult, with no wish for Father Brennan to know her identity. Is Father Brennan going to risk reputational damage to the accused by informing the police based upon an anonymous allegation? Is he going to tell Sally that he cannot report the matter to the police unless he knows who she is, precisely because of the possibility of a malevolent allegation made by an anonymous party? But, can he ask her to disclose her identity, a confessing priest who must be taken to be in a power relationship with an underage penitent, when to disclose her identity makes Sally vulnerable? There is an ethical issue with even asking a penitent to disclose her identity (especially ‘her’ identity when the confessor is a man). But, without disclosure, how can a referral to the police be made ethically?

Roy Chen Yee 21 August 2017

"1500 times to 30 priests...." What the??? Sorry, this completely baffles me, if not on a statistical level, then on a psycho-spiritual level. Does this mean that McArdle committed 1500 acts of abuse or that he never felt 'absolved' enough (which is possible for a disturbed man) and so had to compulsively confess his compulsive crimes/sins repeatedly to other priests? Either way, the sacrament of confession obviously ISN'T working, but has actually been an accessory to crime and torment (even of McArdle). Not only did 'confession' result in more destroyed lives after each confession, but McArdle himself was obviously and desperately not 'receiving the graces' of the sacrament. Why is that? Seriously, why? McArdle seems like a compulsive abuser and as such no amount of confession was going to stop him....the Law was the only way to stop him and had the Law been brought in earlier, 1,499? people might have been saved from damage, and McArdle may have received help earlier and perhaps even been stopped from becoming a compulsive abuser - who knows? What on earth are we discussing here then? Answer...a principle, a dogma, and feelings of Traditional and long held privilege and power being threatened. I get the seal of confession but this is just crazy.

Stephen de Weger 22 August 2017

"The sanctity of the confessional"... What sanctity? Where is the 'holiness/sanctity in all this. If the sacrament is working well, and not itself being abused, yes, perhaps. Sorry, forgot to say, thanks Barry G for your comment - it shows great insight, and challenges the premise that the seal of the confessional does not contribute to the abuse of children and subsequent cover up of that abuse. At best I could agree that it is not the sacrament itself but the abuse of the seal that leads to further abuse. In my research area of clergy abuse of adults, the escapism of confession does seem to contribute to further abuse, or, at least, sexual activity by clergy, perhaps even more so. This is especially true because confessors often recognise themselves in brother clergy confessees. This is also not to mention, the possibility also of blackmail, through knowledge gained through the confessional. It also seems to lead to a broader more general suppression of any desire to act against abuse of children and adults. So, does the seal of confession contribute to further abuse? Hmm, a good topic for another needed study.

Stephen de Weger 22 August 2017

Stephen de Weger. "Either way, the sacrament of confession obviously ISN'T working but has actually been an accessory to crime". Surely you are not saying that god's presence amongst us has been conducive to criminal activity and that sin has been forgiven regardless of the requirements of penitence, resolution not to repeat the offence and just retribution, It is highly likely that if the god we believe in does indeed exist, the sacrament works wonderfully well. What perhaps you meant to say is that unfortunately human beings have abused the sacrament. Sanctity exists in the sacrament but as you suggest there is no sanctity in the abuse of the sacrament and clearly none in the abuse ignored by some in positions of authority in the Church. These latter are the ones who need to seek out the sanctity of confession and resolve to sin no more. God does the forgiving and I suppose one day we will know whether Mc Ardle was forgiven 1500 times - somehow I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't. Sacraments are not part of this world - rather they are God's domain to which we are invited as a great privilege. Frank has got this one right in his dealings with God's law rather than the civil law.

john frawley 22 August 2017

Stephen, the holiness and efficacy of the confessional resides in the penitent's encounter with Christ and his forgiveness, independent of the worthiness of the priest. In Catholic sacramental theology and tradition there is a distinction between 'ex opere operato' and 'ex opere operantis' which is relevant to your question (which I take to be more than rhetorical).

John 22 August 2017

The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony is also a channel of Divine Grace. And yet Pope Francis has expressed his opinion about how divorced and remarried couples who have not be granted an Annulment are now, via the guidance of a Parish Priest or Bishop, welcomed to receive The Blessed Sacrament. The Most Holy Eucharist. Is the Sacrament of Reconciliation less of a channel of Divine Grace than the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony? If it is not. And they are on par. How could Pope Francis allow this to happen? So, I may be wrong, ( because I'm not a priest ) though I believe if Pope Francis or another Pope came to know of a priest who broke the seal of the confessional to help '' stop a child from being abused by an adult". He would graciously 'allow' him, some way, some how, some day to continue being a priest.

AO 23 August 2017

Two thousand years of theology layered onto the simple loving message of Jesus to the disciples not to be a barrier to the children coming to him. So where has so much theology gotten us today apart from complicating such a simple message? Just look at the discussions here. Seems to me if the theology of confession is a barrier to children coming to Jesus (and I'm including protecting children here), the church itself, not the state, needs to look at what it is doing. It needs to ask what is the greater good and where its heart really lies. As one of my colleagues says when faced with tough personal choices, "what would Jesus do"?

Brett 23 August 2017

John and John, all I'm saying is that in the case of McArdle, all these words, definitions, dogmas mean nothing, zilch. They had NO effect on McArdle and this resulted in hundreds???of new victims. This is not a holy thing or process...sounds more like an evil one. I know the teaching - the grace is there but only for those who are receptive to it, in the proper way. So, at best, I can say that McArdle was just a bad apple and the confessional process still a good 'apple barrel'. Just explain this to the hundreds of victims that came after. It means NOTHING.

Stephen de Weger 23 August 2017

@ John..."more than rhetorical"??? Well, no, actually. You know, I used to so passionately believe all you are saying. One day, however, after certain 'discussions' (or lack thereof) with a certain church hierarch, I realised that there are two Churches, one embedded in theory and one in practice. The theoreticians are more often than not just ladder climbers and Catholic careerists, or, they are those who fear to question their own foundations; the practicals are the hands and heart of God, are not afraid to question their faith and commitment as it bounces off real life situations, and they learn a great deal about being human in the process. After being more or less deserted by the church/this hierarch, I began to look as an observer into all that I had believed all my life. I was finally able to be an objective observer and guess what I discovered...so much of Catholicism is just plain weird. Sorry, but it is. And we have the fallout of the sexual abuse of children and adults (and s many other psychological problems) to prove it. The church/hierarchs just cannot handle the real Truth on the human level, and this is such an absolute contradiction to what it proclaims itself to be. This issue of confession is a perfect case, especially when we can't even see the craziness of the McArdle story.

Stephen de Weger 23 August 2017

I've never really thought of robbing a bank in a burqa until I saw Pauline Hanson in parliament - but now that you mention it - the seal of confessional could be used to hide a plethora of sins. Wouldn't have Christians in Eastern Europe been faced with a similar dilemma when discerning whether Jews should be protected from persecution from Nazism? So act according to your "primacy of conscience", Fr Brennan, and protect vulnerable ones in this situation where pedophiles can potentially hide behind the screen of the confessional - EXPOSE THEM. Dob them in from the highest rooftops.

AURELIUS 23 August 2017

One more question: In essence, how is the McArdle-like use of confession different in spirit and result, to the use of parish swapping of abusers? Both are methods of covering up abuse - the former, is personal cover it up, the latter collective. This ism now my biggest argument with Catholicism/religion...it so many ways to hide from psychological truths lurking within one's self and within the beliefs. And worse still, some of these ways are called 'spirituality'.

Stephen de Weger 24 August 2017

Ah, look, perhaps I just have an issue with the so called 'sanctity' of the confessional' because I was sexually assaulted during confession by a chaplain (at the time) of the group called Acceptance.

Stephen de Weger 24 August 2017

Barry G raised an important point. He reminded me of the case of an ultimately convicted paedophile Anglican priest in Brisbane. This man saw a senior cleric about his crimes. The latter confessed him and did not report the case to the police. To me this demonstrates the old fashioned, disproved common Roman and Anglo-Catholic delusion in this country that Confession could somehow 'cure' sins which are caused by deep seated psychological problems. Miracles do occur but sadly not like this, which appears pretty close to presuming on God's grace. As you and many intelligent posters have said, Confession being secret, it would be impossible to police.

Edward Fido 24 August 2017

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