By James Parker, July 2020
What words does the phrase ‘child sexual abuse and the Catholic Church’ conjure up in your mind? Perhaps the words darkness, shame, secrets, destruction, the glory in the ruin of innocent life.
Digest mainstream media and unbridled social media and I would be surprised if your thoughts did not veer in this direction. However, as is often the case, this is not the full story. In fact, in most cases it could not be further from the truth.
I write as a survivor of extensive childhood sexual abuse. Typically, I was abused by several perpetrators, but the principal and most destructive offender was an elementary school teacher. Grooming, guilt and shame, powerlessness, betrayal, ambivalence – these were just some of the ingredients mixed into my developing soul.
The first person and place I chose to disclose my childhood abuse was to a Catholic priest under the seal of confession. At the time, I was a teenager riddled with suicidal ideation. I felt that I had no one to turn to. I was not a Catholic and had been raised to actually be wary of Catholics and their so-called sacraments. It was the profound empathy of the priest in confession that day which literally began to turn my life from despair to hope.
I underwent a lengthy journey of recovery, and some years later contacted the police which led me to becoming the key witness in a case which convicted a serial paedophile. Without the safety I had felt with the priest under the seal of confession, I would never have begun my healing journey. This would have left a prolific abuser free to continue to damage more children’s lives. In retrospect, the confessional seal saved not only my life, but in turn saved many other children from being abused.
This causes a dichotomy across our global village. The setting of the confessional is now predominantly seen as a place of abuse and scandal when all along, and increasingly so today for abuse survivors, it is a place of compassion and healing.
Adult survivors of child sexual abuse in my home state of Western Australia are challenging our politicians’ attempts to pass a law which will force Catholic and Orthodox priests to break the seal of confession obliging them to report to statutory authorities any mention of child sexual abuse by any penitent.
Along with politicians, many people believe this to be a good thing and, believing media reports, see this as a sensible response to help rid our society of the silent scourge of sexual abuse. Half of Australia’s States have already enacted similar laws as a response to Recommendation 16.26 made in the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that make it a criminal offence for a priest to withhold any abuse disclosure. Queensland is moving towards a similar law, while New South Wales has deferred any action.
Although appearing a good thing in principle, it is not in practice. I ask you to reflect for a moment: who uses the confessional? And why?
Being candid, child abusers are most unlikely to visit the confessional. If they did, this would at least present the priest with a rare opportunity to help reform the offender, possibly by deferring absolution and placing restrictions on the penitent, to revisit him as the same confessor, thereby preventing movement from one confessor to another. This is more likely to lead abusers to bring themselves before the statutory authorities.”
If this were to happen then that would be a win for both society and for governments, and yet even alluding to confessionals being policed will now keep perpetrators away.
What most of society have not realised, even churchgoers, is that victims and survivors often visit the confessional, whether they are Catholic, Orthodox, non-Catholic, non-Orthodox, yes, even non-Christians. They do this because the seal of confession presents as a vital lifeline that aids recovery.
The seal offers victims a watertight place where they can be listened to without cost, where they can remain anonymous, where they can decide what they are ready, and not ready, to share, and all of this in complete confidence. The confessional as it presently stands is possibly the last remaining place of complete safety that literally keeps survivors alive and offers every abuse victim the chance to begin to heal.
Let us be clear: policing the seal will leave more victims failing to access a critical pathway to healing. This will leave some encaged in trauma, which in turn will mean fewer survivors being strong enough to face statutory authorities and any possible future court process, which will result in more child abuse in society. Hardly a good result for any government.
Today, I walk alongside victims of every age and culture, most of whom have been abused by a family member or someone known to them. These individuals – most of them women – use the confessional as their only safe place of discussion and healing. None of these people feel at liberty to challenge politicians in the battle for privacy in the confessional because governments insist on names and personal details when dealing with citizens.
Most survivors fear their name being linked to their story and someone somewhere at some point in the present or future finding out details. For some, this would feel worse than the original abuse itself. So already, victims and survivors end up being penalised and diminished in their healing journeys even before a law might be passed.
Policing the seal of confession will lead to the State, or indeed a nation’s, manipulating the safety of every victim’s narrative. It will strip survivors of their limited present-day control and increase fear of approaching a key source of hope and healing that is free of charge and available outside of working hours in every community locality.
Survivors would also be denied the opportunity to make their own decisions at their own pace should statutory authorities get involved. Note the words manipulate, strip, fear, and denial in these earlier sentences, a mirroring of childhood sexual abuse, only this time wrought by civil authorities, all of which will lead to a decrease in victims’ mental health.
Australian survivors are deeply grateful for the important and necessary work undertaken by the Royal Commission. However, its Final Report was unable to provide a full picture of the plague of child sexual abuse in Australia. Its remit in 2013 to inquire into institutional responses to child abuse addressed a mere fraction of historical abuse, when it is known that the vast majority of child abuse occurs beyond the boundaries of institutions and looks very different today than it did decades ago.
Australia’s state governments have failed to consult widely with victims and survivors and yet force through legislation to police their pain-filled stories. This retraumatising of society’s vulnerable adults also leaves children at risk. They in turn are highly likely to fear accessing the glass-panelled doorway into the confessional, and yet many survivors today testify that confession is where they began, and sustain, their recovery journeys.
Australia is now unwittingly embracing legal proposals that penalise those already wounded. These will leave victims further traumatised with the confessional’s doorway to hope forcibly slammed shut in their faces. This is a lose-lose situation in the long run for everyone — except of course for perpetrators.
As child abuse survivors across Australia begin to speak with a collective voice, we are learning that the vast majority of Catholic priests are resolutely committed to daily, quietly, and yes silently, assisting us towards restoration and redemption. It is regrettable that the immense harm done by a handful of priests has tarnished the irreplaceable goodness consistently poured out by many clergy.
These great men do not glory in the ruin of innocent lives but rather listen and guide our pain-ridden stories towards the healing touch and merciful heart of a God who chose to take onto himself our deepest wounds and victimhood.
So, when you next hear the words ‘child sexual abuse and the Catholic Church’ in the same sentence, maybe you could call to mind the greater lived reality, which is lives turning from darkness to light, from secrecy to safety, from destruction to dignity?
As survivors, we literally thank God for every Catholic priest who, under the seal of confession, refuses to shy away from a victim’s trauma but rather assists in restoring every ruined imago Dei to its original glory. Our abuse gloriously ruined our lives through guilt and shame. Yet through faith in Christ within the confessional our lives of ruined glory are restored back to innocence.
This is the good news mainstream media would do well to broadcast, for the sake of every victim of childhood sexual abuse and for society as a whole.
Still not convinced? Then hear these survivors’ lived realities:
(18-year-old Australian male) “I began having flashbacks a few years ago about my childhood sexual abuse at school. Facing this trauma at 16 made me feel more vulnerable than ever. One of the safest people and places I knew I could turn to was my local priest under the seal of the confessional. This is my safe place to talk about my abuse. I know it’s the same for many other people too.”
(27-year-old Australian male) “Only a few years ago, due to my inner turmoil, I felt compelled to consider Christ. But where would I find Him? I went to confession, and through many sobs and tears I tasted of true freedom for the first time in my life.”
(35-year-old Australian female) “I was on a heavy regime of medications to numb the pain. But the pain was still there. It had to be dealt with. It was only at age 34, that I had the courage to face the severe impact sexual abuse had on my life and it was through the security of the seal of confession that little by little I was able to disclose and therefore process the way the abuse impacted and effected every facet of my life.”
(35-year-old Aboriginal female) “As an Aboriginal woman, I think the Catholic confessional is the only place a vulnerable aboriginal child or adult can access discretely and free of charge, without fear of reprisal. The seal of confession as it presently stands offers the aboriginal community a desperately needed lifeline. No decent caring human being should even consider tampering with that.”
(60-year-old Asian female) “People leave institutions. You can’t ever “leave” your family, even if you choose to move cities or countries. This is the perfect reason why the seal of confession must not be interfered with. It can literally mean the difference between life and death for us as victims and survivors, and some would rather make use solely of the confession and take their secret to the grave with them than have their past ever made known publicly. I’d count myself as one of them.”
(Arab female in her 60s) “It was inside the Confessional after decades of sexual abuse as a child at the hands of neighbours and distant family members that I found myself pouring out my heart to a priest in Confession. He helped me to find my safe place, my refuge where I could express my deepest pain and sorrow. If my safe place within Confession is ever threatened, I don’t know how I would react or what I am capable of doing.”