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Nov 26, 2012

Hollingworth's holey logic on secrecy of the confessional

Former governor general Peter Hollingworth may claim that a priest's confessional should remain secret, but it's a concept full of logical holes, Queensland journalist Amanda Gearing.

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Peter Hollingworth

Peter Hollingworth’s logic on why crimes confessed under the seal of the confessional should remain secret doesn’t stack up.

His contention that someone who s-xually abuses children should be able to confess their crimes to a priest and expect the priest to keep the crimes a secret in order to protect criminals’ willingness to report their crimes to a priest, is ridiculous. He fails to distinguish between the church’s role as a place of penitence for sinners, and the role of responsible citizens reporting crimes to civil authorities for the administration of justice. I’m not sure many Australians would agree with him.

The “seal of the confessional” has, for far too long, been used as an excuse for failing to report crimes by priests and church workers against children to police. Hollingworth’s memory may have dimmed but the letter he wrote to p-edophile priest John Elliott on November 30, 1993 (and which is cited in the Anglican Board of Inquiry Report in 2003) is clear.

Having personally received reports of s-xual abuse from some of Elliott’s victims and a report by a psychiatrist, that Elliott was likely to re-offend, Hollingworth did not report to police or sack the priest. Instead he wrote to Elliott that:

“Having given your situation long and prayerful thought, I have now reached the conclusion that no good purpose can be served in my requiring you to relinquish your pastoral responsibility as Rector of Dalby. The matter which has exercised my mind most strongly is the fact that your departure at this stage could cause unintended consequences that would make things worse for you and the Church.

“The major difficulty is that in not taking disciplinary action I and the Church could subsequently be charged with culpability while as the same time an act of removing you would place you in an impossible situation at your age and stage in life. I therefore propose the following:

“Firstly that you give a clear and written undertaking to me that you will not establish or have any close association with CEBS Groups or similar kind of groups for boys. Secondly that when in the presence of young boys you always have someone else with you. And thirdly that you take the option of retiring at age 65.

“This action differs from the advice given to me by Dr Slaughter who is of the view that your problem is something which keeps recurring and is likely to happen again. I would like to see you as soon as possible when next you come down to Brisbane, and we can talk further about any other action that needs to be taken to protect matters in future.

“I am conscious that you have felt the strain of a long wait, but that is part of the process as I try to weigh up what is the right action in a complex set of circumstances. I will need to take some action to notify [victim]’s family of my decision, and at this stage I cannot tell what their reaction will be. Please make an appointment with me as soon as possible.”

When asked last week “were you guilty of a cover up in that instance?” by ABC reporter Elizabeth Jackson, Hollingworth replied: “No. It was never covered up. I never concealed it.”

More holey logic. If there was no cover-up, when were the people of the parish of Dalby told that Elliott was a p-edophile, that he was likely to re-offend and they should protect their children from him?

Hollingworth went on to say that the only thing he could say about cover-ups of abuse was that “if there’s a complaint, you really have to be satisfied it’s an authentic complaint and there’s evidence. And sometimes that’s a very difficult thing to do, and sometimes that takes time.”

Holey logic again: police are the authorities which investigate criminal offences — they gather evidence and  prosecute offenders. It is not the church’s job. In the 10 years of Hollingworth’s incumbency as Archbishop, there is no record of him reporting any of the alleged offenders to police.

Disturbing as it is, Hollingworth’s behaviour is not isolated. Similar behaviour by bishops and other church leaders in various denominations is a major reason why the public has lost trust in the institutional churches. Any institution which protects criminals at the expense of innocent children has to be changed.

Hopefully the royal commission into child s-xual abuse will lead to legal reforms which force institutions to report crimes against children to the police.

*Amanda Gearing covered the Anglican abuse case as a journalist and has assisted survivors to recover and bring offenders to justice

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27 thoughts on “Hollingworth’s holey logic on secrecy of the confessional

  1. David Gibson

    Gavin, the reason for client-attorney privilege is to preserve the capacity for an accused to have a rigorous defence. Likewise, the patient-doctor protections are to provide security for sensitive and private information. Neither of these protections are inviolable by law and there are specific circumstances when the law can compel testimony from lawyers and doctors about their clients and patients.

    What’s the legal justification for confessional to remain exempt? How is the nation served by this legal exemption? Why would our laws consider those who do not report crimes as complicit after the fact but not people who wear silly collars?

    Because someone promised a deity they would keep secrets? What does that have to do with justice? What does that have to do with the law of the land, a land populated by a diverse population which does not universally or uniformly value confessional’s imagined sanctity? Not to mention the deity for whom the promise of confidentiality was made?

    The reality is we should not expect the removal of an exemption for the testimony of priests for crimes confessed in confessional and expect this to solve any endemic cultural framework for the protection of sexual predators. While it will have some practical impact on some cases, it would likely have no real impact on confessional.

    Furthermore, it would be a strong symbolic act by the relevant governments to show no one religion stands in favour with respect to the law. Perhaps not just an important message to the people but also to the churches who have spent decades covering up abuse and preventing justice for victims.

    There is no justification for the preservation of this law except to provide special consideration to primarily Catholics. In the multicultural and increasingly secular nation of Australia this leaves a bitter taste in most mouths, including many Catholics I know personally who find it absurd their anachronistic tradition enjoys special privilege in our nation’s laws.

  2. John Bennetts

    @mikeb, posted Tuesday, 27 November 2012 at 8:16 am:

    Any argument that confessionals be policed is essentially irrelevant, unless and until there is a proposal that this be done. There is no such proposal at this time.

    To suggest that this is the core issue is to ignore the real issues, which include:
    – Churches’ failure to remove known offenders from positions of authority over young persons;
    – Of acting as quasi-judiciary or investigatory authorities when they have absolutely no authority to do so – there are courts and police who must perform these functions;
    – For not releasing known facts regarding instances of criminality to the police and only recently, when the heat is rising, starting to offer to release them, in a peicemeal manner, to police;
    – For hiding priests and others who are known to the church to be pedophiles, eg by sending known offenders overseas, beyond the reach of domestic law;
    – For providing aliases to offenders so that they can avoid recognition by those who they would prey on and those who would potentially act to prevent repetition of harm to juveniles.

    The list could go on. My point is and was that discussion about the sanctity of the confessional is irrelevant to these issues. It is a sideshow – the main event is elsewhere.

    Given, as someone posted above, that the one hearing confession and the one on the other side of the curtain cannot see each other and may not even know each other, there is nothing of substance to gain from “policing”, thus no need to discuss it.

    Policing of confessionals is a straw man hypothesis. The real issues lie elsewhere. Those who have difficulty understanding this need to learn the meaning of “straw man argument”. Try Wikipedia, for example.

  3. Salamander

    Andybob has explained why the confessional is not a big issue.
    The article does not support its own demand to abolish “confessional privilege”.

    Hollingworth’s opinion about the confessional is irrelevant. Just because he wants it exempted does not mean it should not be!

    Hollingworth’s failures included 1. He rejected expert advice that Elliott was likely to reoffend. 2. He did not sack or suspend the priest and 3. He did not report Elliott to the police – it seems unlikely this ever entered his head

    None of these actions or lack of them had anything to do with whether or what Elliott had confessed to in the religious sense. That he had abused children was not in dispute.

    The point is that even at that stage, with plenty of independent evidence to hand (victim statements, psych report) his boss at the most senior level failed to take appropriate action.

    Nevertheless it could be argued that requiring everyone in the church, including any confessor to report abuse, would uncover potential criminals at an early stage. However this is likely to be ineffective. It is more likely to destroy trust in a fundamental religious relationship, and to send abusers further underground. Although I do not support religion I think the principle of certain privileged relationships, such as spousal and legal privilege should not be undermined by the State, no matter what. These crimes are horrendous, but so are other intimate betrayals. We should not substitute one travesty for another. We are already heading towards a police state.

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