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.
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