EDITORIAL: Secrets that can injure

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THE main point to make about the debate now raging over the sanctity of Catholic Confession is that a great many of the allegations of church inaction in the face of evidence of criminal acts against children don’t relate to formal Confessions.

Much of the outrage and unhappiness expressed by victims of abuse by clergy has been directed at those who appear to have become aware of crimes and alleged crimes in situations well removed from the Confession box.

So those demanding the truth about who knew what, when they found out and what they did, should not let themselves be too distracted by the argument about the inviolability of Confession. It is an important issue, but not the main one.

Still, the argument that priests who hear Confessions of child sexual abuse should keep that information secret is so transparently morally bankrupt that the merest moment’s reflection should reveal it as inimical to everything Jesus Christ preached or stood for.

It is one thing to say that, without confidentiality, transgressors may not confess their sins at all. And in many circumstances it would be reasonable to agree.

But when the crime confessed is the black, wicked sin of sexual abuse against children, no argument suffices to maintain secrecy.

Indeed, a mountain of evidence, an ocean of human misery and an uncounted number of suicides demonstrate beyond doubt that keeping these deep crimes concealed behind clerical robes and doctrinal smokescreens is utterly destructive to everybody involved.

It is sad that the worldwide Catholic church, a light and comfort to so many, seems at one level to regard public criticism of its unfortunate past record of child abuse as an attack on its role or status. The fact is that almost everybody – of any faith – would concede that the church is peopled in large part by fine and humane idealists.

Indeed, much of the impetus for the royal commission soon to begin has come from those who represent the Catholic church at its best.

The royal commission is not just about the Catholic church. But to the extent that it must and will concern the church, the inquiry represents a healing opportunity that the organisation’s hierarchy should not ignore.

Just as the many victims of child sexual abuse need justice and healing, so does the church.

Attempting to cloak in liturgical respectability the use of the traditional sanctity of Confession as a defence against revealing heinous crimes is a grave moral error that can only deepen the injuries the church has already suffered.