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

Free Trial

Proudly annoying those in power since 2000.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

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.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details