Secrecy and Sexual Abuse: Is the Confessional failing the Church and its Members?

Foreword: Sexual Abuse in the Church and by Christian ‘sects’ such as Christian Assemblies International (CAI) points to a highly disturbing and continuing trend for sexual abuse to be swept under the carpet and go unreported to police. In this second in a series of writings, former Uniting Church Minister Graeme Ness, reflects on the role of the Church and the Confessional in an age when denial and deceit continues to be the characteristic response of Church and Spiritual leaders to this most pressing issue.

When the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) released a paper addressing issues of sexuality for discussion across the UCA in the mid 1990’s, one of the older ladies in one congregation said “I don’t know why we have this paper. We have never talked about these things, and I don’t want to talk about them now.”

A few years later I spent two hours with a lady in her 70’s – she was in hospital and was dying. The lady was very agitated and moving restlessly; the family couldn’t understand what she was worried about. After some time she told me she had been sexually abused by her stepfather when she was 11 and I was the first one she had told about it: that experience of sexual abuse had scarred her life impacting on all her relationships. The sad thing was that it was only as death came near that she talked, accepted that the sexual abuse was not her fault, and finally released the hurt and the tension in her body.

The common approach by sexual abusers is to blame their victims for the abuse, telling them that if they talk either no one will believe them, or ‘if’ they do, that others will believe the abuse is the victim’s fault or that they ‘asked for it’. It’s hardly surprising that as a result many of the victims remain silent about their sexual abuse, keeping it to themselves and secret for years, and often for up to many decades.

The belief by leaders of some organisations, especially highly regarded and publicised Christian Churches, that they are not subject to the law of the country they work in, is a medieval concept and was part of the way the law operated during that medieval period. The Lords of the manor, barons, dukes etc., ran their own courts and too often justice for misconduct (including sexual and otherwise) was arbitrary and depended on the goodwill or whim of the Lord. In this context the church operated and wielded its own law.

The problem seems to be that there are leaders in today’s churches and those in positions of authority who apparently believe the medieval system still prevails. In some situations the Catholic Church claims it cannot be sued in civil courts. The reality is however, that we in our society do not accept that the churches are totally separate from the rest of our society: if the churches and those holding position of power in these organisation expect to be protected by the law, then they must also remain subject to the same law.

To claim that a person who has been ‘ordained’ to ministry/priesthood is exempt from obedience to the law of the land, and for the church to deal with him/her separately, is completely at odds with the common law in relation to sexual abuse and is, I believe, a complete failure to take seriously the vows made at the time of ordination.

Catholic archbishop Dennis Hart, at the Royal Commission into Sex Abuse, publicly stated that the Catholic Church believes mandatory reporting of sexual abuse should exclude the confessional.

This suggests to me that the Catholic Church sees the confessional as over-riding the words attributed to Jesus in the Christian Bible: “If any of you puts a stumbling block before one of these little ones [children], it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” [Matthew 18:6 NRSV]  

If the confessional is used as an excuse by the Catholic Church for not dealing with instances of sexual abuse, then it is clearly not appropriate for the confessional to be exempt from mandatory reporting; this should apply equally to any similar process being used in any other church or group.

The fact that the church claims exemption from the common law suggests a gross misuse of power and a gross disservice to many individuals, families and communities. The people whose lives have been affected by experiences of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct, and who have been rendered silent by their loyalty to the very institution that claims to care for and love its members, deserve to be heard and have their abusers dealt with in a proper manner according to the law.

It is time the Catholic Church, along with all other Christian Churches and organisations who claim to be active in addressing issues of sexual abuse, be held accountable for what they have allowed for decades to go unchecked. The confessional, and any equivalent in any other church or organisation, must be subject to mandatory reporting.

By Graeme Ness, Retired Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia, Woolgoolga, NSW, Australia

Related Reading:
Secrecy and Sexual Abuse in the Church

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503 thoughts on “Secrecy and Sexual Abuse: Is the Confessional failing the Church and its Members?

  1. “It is time the Catholic Church, along with all other Christian Churches and organisations who claim to be active in addressing issues of sexual abuse, be held accountable for what they have allowed for decades to go unchecked. The confessional, and any equivalent in any other church or organisation, must be subject to mandatory reporting.” I so agree. The church shouldn’t consider itself to be above the law.

  2. A much-needed discussion that looks into the truth behind organisations hiding the truth to keep them safe. But before it is about organisations it is about people first, and we need to actually bring it back to the fact that abuse is not OK and should be discussed so that we can understand why it is happening and how to support people in those situations, rather than hide it.

  3. I love the fact that this article has been written by a minister, by someone who clearly loves the word of God and the congregation of people, so much so that he is willing to take a stand and speak out for what is plain and clear and obvious to be true – that churches are within society, they are an integral part of them, and therefore should abide by the laws of all of society and not hold themselves above them, as this is the way forward for us all.

  4. I think it is important to ask why a church may consider itself to be above the law – if they believe there truly is a flaw in it then why not work towards changing it for everyone and if not, then why cushion and hide members who abuse?

  5. It is deeply disturbing to read that there is even a belief that the churches are above and beyond laws, and even more disturbing is the fact that they need laws telling them what is acceptable as human behaviour and what is not.

  6. What is the difference between this type of behaviour as seen in the Catholic Church and what is commonly seen in a cult? Both are not love.

  7. Some religions act as if they are above the law and lack any responsibility or accountability, they have even gone so far as to promote priests or move them around from diocese to diocese when they know they have sexually abused. It is time for this to be exposed in full, thank you Graeme for beginning this process.

  8. Religion is not indoctrinated in a building, it is not taught by a priest it is lived in every breath that we take.

  9. How wrong is it that abusers manipulate the abused to think they will not be believed. They are master manipulators and put on a great ‘face for the world.’ This is why we must look below outside images.

  10. What is being exposed more than ever before are the inconsistencies within the Church, and how there are many gaps in it’s responsibility and respect of the people, common law and so forth.

  11. The question to be asked is about confession itself. It is based on the idea that people are/get impure and get purified through it. Yet, none of that is true in the first place. Confession makes things even worse. While it gives the illusion of getting purified, it cements whatever was there in the first place. So, instead of purification we should talk about petrification. What gets petrified does not go away. If abuse is at stake, confession is not part of the solution but of the problem itself.

  12. There is much evil and corruption in the fact that the church thinks that they are exempt from the common law and that by large we – as a society – have allowed that to continue.

  13. We need transparency and accountability in all institutions, everywhere… especially the church, considering its past history and lack of action in relation to sexual abuse.

  14. I have worked with people who have held onto secrets for years and to feel and see the change in them when they allow themselves the freedom of expression and the courage to share with another is very beautiful.

  15. Keeping abuse secret cripples us. When we cannot express what has happened for fear or shame or any other ‘reason’ we literally imprison ourselves and separate ourselves from the rest of the world and cast a black cloud over the event. Healing begins when we allow ourselves our feelings and the emotions that may have come as a result, when we can express them even if at first we are talking to ourselves, we begin to loosen the hold they have over us and free ourselves from that stifling effect we have been living with for however long.

  16. If we keep these kinds of crimes hidden and no one has accountably, then it makes sense that they will continue. The Catholic church should have a zero tolerance of sexual abuse which would discourage any priest from going down that route in the first place, but instead, they have a culture where their actions are hidden.

  17. The truth is in fact universal includes everyone. So whatever is conducted under the banner of the Catholic Church impacts just as much as when someone outside the church does it. We all have to come back to our own actions on an energetic level and the laws (both energetic and temporal) apply to all of us, without exception.

  18. A crime is a crime no matter who abuses the law and that fact that priests can be exempt from facing court procedures is a crime in itself. It’s time the church became accountable in dealing with the sexual abuse that is prolific and rife.

  19. Absolutely. We have laws of the land that all citizens should be responsible to. There is also the fact of energetic truths and universal laws, it seems to me that many, our churches, and humanity as a whole have neglected to consider the universal laws we all reside under. There is no escaping this, only the consequences of not honouring them. Consequences that many would prefer not to have, yet the erroneous way of living that disrespects and disregards others is continued.

  20. Why should we allow to treat sexual abuse taken place in any religious organisation differently from the law’s of the country of residence. It absolutely makes no sense.

  21. What the church misses out on here is that true love is absolute – there can’t be exclusions in any way. Sexual abuse is not love and whether it is done by a holy priest or a simple guy of the street, the same law and rules apply.

    1. Yes Lieke, well said. And Love is not only absolute it is also universal and therefore equally for all, no exclusion in any way for those persons and organisations who think have the power to do so.

  22. The aim to control is prevalent in organised religion and church and there is basically nothing that will get in the way of that, and this unfortunately means that abuse is low on the list for resolving or dealing with and what is interesting is that although hidden, what is not hidden the churches often do not really feel any compulsion to counter or really do anything about, because control and domination is paramount. This is not Love,Brotherhood and Equality, this is not true religion.

  23. Abuse is abuse, and we can no longer afford to ignore this fact if we truly care for people and truly want to live in a harmonious world. The motive behind the Catholic Church wanting to be exempt from reporting sexual abuse if confessed is not so people have a ‘safe place to talk to someone without the authorities getting involved’ but because they are trying to cover up abuse.

  24. Very beautifully expressed Graeme. The Catholic church has shown absolute contempt for common law preferring to further its own interests through its own laws. All while it’s members and all of those outside of the church have looked on and accepted this medieval reality. Many horrors have been carried out by the Catholic church but it has only been allowed to happen because the rest of us allowed it to.

  25. Here here Graeme, there is no place that should not be subject to the same laws, be that the church, the armed forces, the police. Any institution that asks for this needs to consider very deeply the integrity they need to live with in their benchmark of harm and free from harm. The body knows the difference and as illustrated in your blog, it has to come to the surface at some point because it is poison to the body.

  26. Sexual abuse cannot be dealt with if there is a culture of secrecy. We have to be transparent about our actions and we have to be prepared to call others to account.

  27. No establishment of any kind whatsoever has the right to ask or claim to be exempt from the common law. What makes their establishment or constituent different to any other? Unfortunately over time because we have not stood up for truth, many have suffered in silence and many have passed over and not spoken up, but lies and untruths are not kept hidden for ever, as every indecent act, past and present comes to light and is exposed exactly for what it is.

  28. For this atrocity to go on for so long from way back from medieval times is revealing the lack of truth being claimed amongst us. It’s also shows how much we do not perceive correctly what truth really means or, we feel how we are up against a lot if we claim Our Truth. The way forward is to know what truth feels like in your body and claim that feeling every moment of every day. Through inspiration One by one We will gain strength and power to reclaim back our truth and love in expression. We just need to speak up just like Graeme Ness has – power-full stuff!!!

  29. While the church brings devastation with holding on to its ideas of how to handle the sexual abuse that has and probably still is conducted, it will come to full revelation in time as the holding on to this untruth will eventually deconstruct the whole organisation and will make it disintegrate by its own doing.

  30. The irony here being that there is no hiding in the world of energy (the ‘eyes of God’) in the sense that our every movement carries a consequence if we have moved in a way that is not true to the love that we are. Just like an aggressive movement in water sends out waves that reach others, so too do our actions affect everyone else in the ocean of energy we live within. So we can never ‘get away’ with anything, as it is all recorded energetically and will sit there ‘in the air’ so to speak, until we return to such imprints and re-imprint them with a more loving way to be by learning to move in a way that is in consideration and not abuse of all others who swim beside us.

    1. Yes, no hiding at all and that has been the greatest joy for me to embrace. Somehow we think that what we do out of sight of others can be hidden, and justified as private or between two people, or ‘because I love you’, yet the ripple effect of abuse is felt, it does just ‘sit in the air’ and there are always ripple effects.

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