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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!!!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

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