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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.


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. Gavin Moodie

    I’m prolly missing something, but assume that priests were required by law to report crimes that were confessed and assume further that priests obeyed this law. Presumably the penitent would no longer confess to crimes unknown to the police, which would make the law pointless.

  2. mikeb

    The suggestion is that child abuse disclosed in the confessional should be reportable. Without arguing whether this is legitimate or counter-productive could proponents please explain how this would be policed? Do the confessionals need to be monitored by….someone or other? Would an abuser confess his/her sins if he knew that that the confessor would be obliged to report him/her? To me this is just a populist argument without any real way of being implemented.

  3. billie

    Maybe we need Napoleonic Code here. I thought we had done away with laws for nobility and different laws for commoners but clearly we still have different laws for errant priests and different punishments too.

  4. John Bennetts

    Mike B’s non-argument is sophistry used as wallpaper over the basic problem. It is also very much a straw man argument.

    There should be no doubt about the legal duty of all citizens to report to police all facts known to them about serious crimes. What is needed is not supervision of confessionals (which aren’t really significant in the Anglican church in any case), but removal of any notion that religious orders are above the law of the land, whether via the assumed confidentiality of the confessional or by any other means.

    Clergy have identical obligations as all other citizens. Let’s make sure that they, individually and corporately, understand that there are no special hiding-places, no exemptions and no tolerance.

  5. Warren Joffe

    A lawyer pointed out to me that the secrecy of the confessional should really be understood as a legal (common law or statutory)prohibition on priests being forced to testify to what they have been told. If it is also true that a priest may not actually see the confessing penitent so has to recognise him/her by voice (which could in sci-fi world be fed through a sythesiser but set that aside) the most likely result of a change in the statute law is that penitents will not make unambiguous statements of guilt to priests who could identify them for certain, or that they will rely on the priest doing what his religion requires rather than the law. But I wonder what this has to do with an Anglican like Hollingworth?

    It would be good for Crikey to get someone with a longer view and much thought about these matters to give readers an analysis starting perhaps with the hypothesis that the parishioner admits, though not in the confessional, that he has vandalised the church, committed arson or stolen and sold the church’s treasures to raise money for whatever. How outraged should we be if the priest who knows decides to treat it as a case for pastoral care rather than reporting to the police, even though he believes there have been quite a lot of other offences agains other victims?

  6. Sean Doyle

    I’m getting a bit concerned that the long overdue royal commission will get sidetracked into worrying about the confessional issue out of all proportion to its importance to the issue of destroying cultures of cover up in institutions, religious or secular.

    Taking for example the case analysed in this article, Hollingworth (and presumably other authorities in the church) didn’t need to break the confessional seal because they had the victims flat out telling them about the abuse they’d suffered coupled with a psychiatrist report telling him that the priest was likely to reoffend, thereby creating more victims. Despite this, Hollingworth decided to protect the church and his priest rather than seek justice. The lack of consideration of the victims he displays in his letter explaining his decision says all you need to know about his attitude towards this issue.

    We can change the laws about confessional as much as we like. But until we have people in positions of power and authority willing to act like decent human beings (perhaps this Jesus fellow I’ve heard about would be a good reference point) then little will change. That said, I’d be quite happy to see laws introduced that punish the cover up of child abuse at the same level as child abuse itself. Might help some to “discover” their humanity.

  7. Gavin Moodie

    Surely churches should be exempted from some aspects of laws proscribing discrimination on religious grounds.

    In some circumstances lawyers are not required to report crimes committed by their clients.

  8. Venise Alstergren

    GAVIN MOODIE: Why not continue your logic….

    There are laws telling the electorate not to steal, r-ape, and sundry other squalid details. Are these laws pointless as well?

  9. Venise Alstergren

    GAVIN MOODIE: Why should churches be exempt from some aspects of laws proscribing discrimination on religious grounds?
    Churches/religions have an uncanny ability to be ‘answerable only to God’. Why?

    In the eyes of the law we ARE ALL answerable for crimes committed. No one is above the law, no matter how the various popes would have us believe otherwise.

  10. 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.

  11. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    If a priest has advised police or is suspected of having heard a ‘confession’, why not invite him to court and hear his story under oath? If it’s only ‘hearsay’ or there’s no certainty of identity then so be it. At least there’s no secret.

  12. Malcolm Street

    Warren – Anglo-Catholics and I believe some areas of the High Church do have confession.

  13. Andybob

    The problem is not the confessional. Pell is right when he says that is a distraction. The problem is church leaders like Pell, Hollingworth etc. not notifying the authorities when they have credible evidence outside the confessional. A requirement to notify suspected child abuse need not intrude on the confessional to be effective. This is why bishops etc. don’t hear the confessions of their priests, they keep disciplinary and spiritual communications distinct so they dont find themselves in conflicts. So don’t grab that confessional tar-baby. It’s not where the problem lies.

  14. sparky

    The problem with the churches is that they are exempt from some laws the rest of us have to obey. Being exempt from some makes them think they exempt from them all, eventually.

  15. AR

    Talk of the confessional is a distraction, a red herring inside a Trojan horse. As the Armed Forces enquiry, and any number of coronial verdicts on police misbehaviour show, the problem is the obeisance given to authority.
    The uniformed types are just the most obvious but, in reality, the vast majority of people are never more comfortable than when following orders, no matter how absurd or obscene, because it obviates the obligation for them to think for themselves and be responsible for their action.
    “Just following orders” didn’t fly at Nuremberg in the real world nor should it be worth a pinch of the proverbial when claimed to be coming from the Flying Spaghetti monster or its reps. on Earth.

  16. Gavin Moodie

    A law requiring priests to report crimes confessed in the confessional would be pointless not because it wouldn’t stop crimes, but because there’d be no crime confessed in the confessional.

    Churches should be allowed to employ as priests only people who believe in the church’s religion, thus discriminating in employment on the grounds of religion which is otherwise prohibited.

  17. Joel

    “The major difficulty is that in not taking disciplinary action I and the Church could subsequently be charged with culpability”

    And there it is. He wilfully endangered children by exposing them to a paedophile, and he did this to protect the paedophile and the church’s interests. He should be in the dock, facing charges with jail time.

    As should all those who acted in bad faith to protect the church from its victims.

  18. Salamander

    The confessional has nothing to do with the issue of church authorities failing to report abuse to police..

  19. mikeb

    @John Bennetts. If it’s a “straw man” argument then please point out how you would overcome the issues I raised. In all the comments so far no-one has.

  20. Geoff England

    Church hierarchy from the top down has been in denial for decades. denial, and cover up. it’s clear where the priorities of the Church lie….that is within it’s own house.

    These supposed men of God have more regard for their own careers than the welfare of another vulnerable human being.
    This is counter to every tenet of Christian doctrine.

    Hypocrisy is alive and flourishing within the Catholic Church and it’s time all this bleating about confessional privacy, and special legal status for the Church is reconsidered.

    When privileges are extended only to be abused repeatedly, they MUST be withdrawn.These churchmen are not infallible, nor are they representatives of god on Earth. they are users and abusers of the worst kind, hiding behind their clerical collars.

    The church seems to have never really progressed from the completely corrupt days of the Borgia papacy, with sexual exploits (lust), greed and gluttony, pride, avarice and deception the main order of the day.

  21. Gavin Moodie

    Client legal privilege (aka legal professional privilege) is justified as necessary for the administration of justice: clients wont seek and get full representation from their lawyers unless they are able to discuss their matters with their lawyers fully and frankly.

    Doctor patient privilege is justified as necessary to encourage patients to report their circumstances fully to their physician so that physicians can treat their patients will full information.

    So one may justify the confidentiality of the confessional to maximise the effectiveness of religion. Advocates may argue that religion will be less effective without the full trust between priest and penitent.

  22. 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.

  23. Venise Alstergren

    GAVIN MOODIE: “”Churches should be allowed to employ as priests only people who believe in the church’s religion, thus discriminating in employment on the grounds of religion which is otherwise prohibited.””It’s hard to work out which side of the fence you’re painting on. Are you in favour of this sort of discrimination, or are you not?

    “”So one may justify the confidentiality of the confessional to maximise the effectiveness of religion. Advocates may argue that religion will be less effective without the full trust between priest and penitent.””

    Very neatly put. However, the comments sections in Crikey are for people to express an opinion one way or another. Merely stating a bland generalisation might be good for trolling, but it does nothing to state your opinion.

  24. 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.

  25. Andybob

    The statutory foundation for Doctor Patient privilege was removed with the Uniform Evidence Acts and it did not have a common law basis, so no longer exists. On the other hand the Commonwealth now has a limited form of Journalists privilege, so thats a kind of sop for privilege mavens I suppose.

  26. mikeb

    @john bennetts – The whole article relates to the concept of secrecy of the confessional. That is the real “straw man” of this debate. Confidentiality in the confessional is not the issue that should be the subject of scrutiny, and every time it is brought up further dilutes the substance of the real issue. Maybe if more people stopped referring to this so-called stumbling block as somehow being important then real solutions might be found.

  27. John Bennetts

    Fair enough, MB.


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