LONDON, (ChurchMilitant.com) - A statutory commission has asked Britain's parliament to compel priests to break the seal of confession and inform on pedophiles who confess their sins.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse published its final report on Thursday, insisting that "mandatory reporting" should be an "absolute obligation" with no exemptions for "faith-based settings or personnel," especially "in the context of sacramental confession."
Clergy must report pedophiles to "the police, social services or a dedicated agency" and such mandatory reporting "should not be subject to exceptions based on relationships of confidentiality, religious or otherwise," the 468-page report maintained.
The Church cannot cite "freedom of religion or belief" when a person "has witnessed the abuse, has seen evidence of it (by, for example, having seen incriminating messages or images) or has heard a confession by the perpetrator," the commission categorically stated.
The cardinal-archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, who was earlier admonished by IICSA for "no acknowledgment of any personal responsibility to lead or influence change," did not respond to the state-appointed body's demand for overriding the seal of confession.
In 2019, when IICSA asked Nichols if he had any views about the Australian Royal Commission's recommendation on "breaking the seal of the confession," the cardinal said that he would "defend the seal of the confession, absolutely."
People "have been put to death in defense of the seal of the confession. It might come to that," the cardinal stated. "The seal of confession is of a sacred nature" and "at the heart of the priest's ministry, acting in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
Such a law would "put every priest in this country in a position of great liability, because a priest would not be able to defend himself if somebody went forward and said, 'I told Father X that I'm an abuser.' Anybody could do that and no priest could defend himself," Nichols warned.
When asked if a penitent had ever confessed to him a sin involving child sexual abuse, Nichols replied, "In responding to this question, I would like it to be absolutely clear that I am not breaking the seal of confession."
In 2017, the Australian Royal Commission examined five Catholic archbishops enquiring about what could and could not be disclosed from the contents of a sacramental confession. A hypothetical situation of a child confessing she has stolen candy, but then telling the priest she is being sexually abused was posed to the prelates.
"Is it the case that what Sally has said about stealing lollies is subject to the seal and therefore can't be revealed, and what she has said about her own abuse is separate from that and therefore can be revealed?" the archbishops were asked.
"It became apparent from the responses of the archbishops that there was uncertainty and a sharp difference of opinion concerning the correct response," the Australian report noted.
After consulting with canon lawyers, the final report proposed that the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference refer the matter to the Holy See's Apostolic Penitentiary "given the unclear position within the Catholic Church in Australia."
In its response, the Vatican clarified that "the confessor is never allowed, for any reason whatsoever, 'to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner' (can. 983, §1), just as 'a confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded' (can. 984, §1)."
The extent of the seal, the Holy See noted, includes "all the sins of both the penitent and others known from the penitent's confession, both mortal and venial, both occult and public, as manifested with regard to absolution and therefore known to the confessor by virtue of sacramental knowledge."
But "even if the priest is bound to scrupulously uphold the seal of the confessional, he certainly may, and indeed in certain cases should, encourage a victim to seek help outside the confessional or, when appropriate, to report an instance of abuse to the authorities," it added.
The commission also asked the Australian bishops to seek advice from the Holy See as to whether a priest can and should withhold absolution from a pedophile until they report themselves to civil authorities.
The Holy See replied, explaining that "absolution can be withheld only if the confessor concludes that the penitent lacks the necessary contrition" and absolution "cannot be made conditional on future actions in the external forum."
In 2019, the Australian state of Victoria passed legislation compelling priests to violate the seal of confession in cases of suspected child abuse. The law carries a sentence of up to three years in prison if a clergyman does not report abuse to the authorities.
The archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, responded, "Personally, I'll keep the seal," as the heterodox Catholic premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, praised the new law, saying it was intended to send a message all the way to the top of the Catholic Church in Rome.
In 2021, Western Australia passed the Community and Family Services Amendment Bill, compelling all religious ministers to report child sexual abuse even when it is revealed under the Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican religious practice of confession.
The law "not only potentially criminalizes fidelity to an essential dimension of the practice of our Catholic faith by our priests but also carries with it no guarantee that any child will be better protected from abuse because of this decision," the archbishop of Perth, Timothy Costelloe, noted.
"With the passage of this law, it is almost inconceivable that a perpetrator would put him or herself at risk of discovery," Costelloe observed. "Thus, any admittedly small chance a priest might have to seek to convince a perpetrator of the evil of his or her actions and encourage or direct that person to go to the police would be lost."
"If a perpetrator did take the 'risk' of going to confession, he or she would certainly go to a priest who could not identify them, and who conducted confession in a setting which guaranteed anonymity," he added in his pastoral letter.
Costelloe did not respond to queries asking if he was going to instruct the priests of this archdiocese to break the law, labeling them as "trick questions."
Responding to the IICSA report, the Catholic Council for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse said it would examine its contents and recommendations but did not comment on whether it would ask priests to report abusers to the authorities.
Between 1970 and 2015, the Church received more than 3,000 complaints against more than 900 individuals connected to the Church, the IICSA report revealed.
Commenters on social media warned that secular governments in the West had already banned Catholics from receiving the sacraments during the COVID-19 lockdowns and how Church leaders, including Abp. Nichols, had willingly capitulated.
Church Militant asked Nichols for a response to IICSA's mandate compelling priests to break the seal of confession in cases of pedophile penitents. "All responses on IICSA will come from the Catholic Council," the archbishop's office replied.