PREDICTABLY, there was little political support this week for a proposal to make church confessions subject to mandatory reporting provisions as part of a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into sexual abuse.
Despite the increasing evidence about the impact of abuse in the church, and the advocacy of victims rights groups and support from the public, any potential changes to the secretive processes adopted by the church, which has effectively seen abuse covered up, is unlikely to be altered by the Victorian inquiry.
Why is it that even when faced with the most devastating impacts of abuse are politicians not prepared to challenge church practices?
Because the Catholic Church is incredibly powerful. Its practices in regard to confession is a cornerstone of its belief systems and a core of its attitude to living a Christian life.
It sees the suggestion that confessions be subject to mandatory reporting as an attack on its soul.
This week’s reaction from the church and political leaders fails to recognise why exceptions must, and can, be made in sexual abuse cases.
Exceptions must be made because the public remains sceptical about the church’s approach to uncovering and exposing abuse. The church has not been able to convince the public that, despite the extent of abuse uncovered in Victoria in recent decades, that it is committed to ousting perpetrators.
Cynics believe the church is more interested in damage control and moving into a new future than delving into the dark past. Opposition to the imposition of mandatory reporting of abuse will only increase such scepticism.
Realistically, mandatory reporting of sexual abuse through confessions would not undermine the church’s practices. It would be the exception rather than the rule with confessions of a non-legal nature remaining confidential. A clear delineation could be created between what is right and what is wrong.
Even in these circumstances, there would be priests who would refuse to speak up, such is the commitment to their faith.
The incredible difficulties faced by government in legislating for mandatory reporting through church confessionals is a considerable hurdle. Yet, there is little stopping politicians from keenly advocating for the church to consider changing its own practices.
Doctors, teachers and other professionals holding positions where privacy is a core element of those jobs have adapted to more stringent reporting practices in recent years. Priests are out of step with society if they do not consider themselves as holding similar responsibilities.
If the church says it is fully committed to stopping abuse and demanding an honest and open attitude to its members, it should consider taking a leading approach to changing how it views and uses confessionals when the most serious of crimes are being communicated.