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

  1. Well said Graeme, I completely agree with you. No organisation is able to place itself outside of the law. The law applies to all including the Catholic Church and of course the confessional is not exempted from the need to report any abuse. Although I have no personal experience of it, I have always felt that there is something deeply wrong with the whole confessional thing. I can not imaging Jesus recommending such a process nor can I imagine God supporting it in any way. In other words, the whole thing feels to have been contrived by man as part of the controlling through fear.

  2. How there can ever be a reason for someone to be exempt from being accountable for their actions whether this is sexual abuse or any other crime, I cannot understand and is inexcusable. This way of thinking exposes the hypocrisy that the Catholic Church stands on.

  3. Given the abhorrent violent and sexual history of the Catholic Church, it is astounding that they are still attempting to cover up what is occurring. If there was integrity they would be making every effort to be transparent.

  4. Graeme I applaud you for standing up and saying so clearly what needs to be said. There appears to be so much secrecy and a ‘boys club’ attitude pervading religions that believe themselves to be above the law. Putting oneself ‘above the law’ is a great way to expose how arrogant those that do this are. It immediately separates the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots’ with those in the ‘have’ camp believing they are better and some how untouchable. Not someone I would go to seek counsel from thats for sure!

  5. Thank you Graeme for speaking up about the disgusting and disturbing behaviour of the Catholic Church and other Christian churches. These crimes committed against children should be dealt with by the law not left up to a church that excuses and hides then lies about this abhorrent behaviour.

  6. Here here Graeme. It’s difficult even to consider that just because someone works within a church that they are except from the law. As if they have some special access to another law that is beyond the law of the land. It’s a seeing of themselves as being better than another or more entitled because they have closer relationship to God because that’s who they work for. I had never linked the medieval past of how the church was to things now and of course Graeme what you say makes so much sense. It’s definitely time to move into the ‘new era’ and see that no-one is more or less than another. We are in fact equal and therefore subject to all of the same laws.

    1. Well said Jennifer. If every member of every congregation of every denomination stood up and demanded true responsibility we would not have so called ‘religious’ systems in place that allow abusers to continue their crimes.

  7. The confessional, and any equivalent in any other church or organisation, must be subject to mandatory reporting. – Agree this is a duty of care and the church not being above the law in any way shape of form.

  8. The day will come when we realize we all live under the same universal law, we will know as fact that all is recorded and all deeds are paid for.

  9. Wow, it is absolutely absurd that the Catholic Church considered themselves to be above the law, whether now or hundreds of years ago. It exposes where they think they lie in society and in regards to humanity. No single one of us is above or more than any one else. We are all equal. Any religion that teaches or acts otherwise is clearly not a true religion.

  10. “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.” How lost are the ones that think that they should get away with something that is so obviously wrong? This also shows how far away we can stray away from being Godly but still think that we are.

  11. Sexual abuse often creates a bond of silence between two people that can last for a life and an invisible bond of the victim with a deep trauma that also is a life companion. The invisibility and silence are feeders to what happened and help us to hold on to them though.

  12. No one or no body should be above the law, especially when sexual abuse is involved but the reality of the matter is these people may think they are getting away with it but in truth we don’t ever get away with anything, so the sooner everything is out in the open the sooner people can heal the wounds caused by these crimes.

  13. Thank you Graeme for expressing what so many people feel. We cannot say it often enough or loud enough – The church is not above the law. They need to be held accountable for their actions and they absolutely need to make the confessional subject to mandatory reporting.

  14. Thank you Grahame for speaking out about a subject that many churches would rather not have exposed. A crime is a crime whether in the church or outside the church, it is not above the law. The lies and cover ups need to be exposed and the penalties for these crimes need to be carried out.

  15. Sexual abuse has long-standing repercussions not only for those directly involved but the whole of society. And without true support the trauma remains for people affected by it.

  16. ABSOLUTELY, how can we have one rule of law for one and another for others? “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.” I find it so hard to comprehend how this was ever allowed to be and yet the fear of being excommunicated means catholics in positions of power agree to rules of law that create this inequality. The consequence of this rule is that it allows the sexual abuse of children and that cannot, under any circumstances, be accepted as right by any law of God or the land.

  17. I agree with you 100% Graeme. There is no love whatsoever in any type of abuse, and priests and ministers should not be entitled to any ‘special’ dispensation. They are placed in a privileged position of trust and it is an integral part of their duty to be role models and representatives of God’s unconditional love.

  18. How can we say that we have truly advanced as a human race, when abuse of another’s sacred body is considered, by the catholic and some other churches, to be above the law and where the perpetrators are allowed to enjoy immunity from prosecution?

  19. Spot on Graeme, the Catholic Church has been allowed to run their own show and take the law into their own hands for too long now. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the crimes that the Church have swept under the carpet, the arrogance of the Church has harmed too many people and it is now time for them to be held accountable for these actions.

  20. It’s absurd to suggest some members of a citizenry be exempt from the law of their land due to their religious or any other affiliation. It actually makes me feel there is something those seeking exemption wish to hide – and this as an aside to the now public knowledge of rampant abuse in the Catholic Church and other faith-based organisations.

  21. The issue here exposed is that without a law to keep them in order of what is decent behaviour the religions in question would allow the continual rape, sexual abuse and abuse of children to go unchecked. We all know that this is as Godless as it gets. When there is not an ounce of God in religion, but we all still call it religion what have we allowed? If a water company put poison in its water, it would stripped of its right to trade. Why is religion any different? Anyone can dress in regalia and call themselves an authority of God, but what is the truth they are actually living?

  22. There was a time when the dogma of religion surpassed all other rights, and by that I refer of course to the dark ages. But that time has passed, and it is time that the Catholic Church acknowledged that is no longer the all being power it once was, and must as part of society be held acccountable to the same laws that govern us all.

  23. It is interesting now how the amount of sexual abuse is beginning to come to the surface. Many of those who have been abused keep it to themselves until they are no longer able to live with it, which can take decades before they find the words to use. There are many organisations that have thought they have been above the law, however in truth no one can be above the law and those perpetrators should be brought to account, and those in authority who have done their best to cover it up should also equally be brought to account too.

  24. Any lack of transparency has a devastating effect on humanity because it allows all sorts of things to occur within businesses, families, organizations, governments etc and not be addressed. The only way to call out the corruption in the world and properly deal with it is to demand transparency.

  25. If indeed we are all one family, Sons of the one God, then no one of us is above the other. We are all accountable under the law of the land and Our Father.

  26. The laws of the land are in place to protect the most vulnerable and yet the Catholic Church still sees fit to flounce these in the arrogance that it is above any such laws. We are in the 21st century, not the dark ages and it is time that the Catholic Church is made fully accountable for allowing sexual abuse within its priests. The fear that the Catholic Church has instilled in humanity throughout the ages is still living today as shown by your experience Graeme with the elderly lady that had been too fearful to speak up and had held the harm of sexual abuse in her body for the whole of her life.

  27. If unreported, sexual abuse turns into a long-term game of abuse, in which there is an acceptance of a way of moving through life and an established pattern of interrelationship with the perpetrator, even if there is no physical relationship with him/her.

  28. The fact that we can have this discussion proves how far away the church is from God. It’s like the opposite of what God represents which proves that they have gone astray a long time ago, if at all they have been aligned to what God truly is, I would say probably not.

  29. It appears to me to be absurd, if not outright obscene, to insist that the confessional can or should be exempt from mandatory reporting – honestly, what is going on here? Do they think they are above the law and above the people whom they are purportedly here to lead to salvation?

  30. I’m struggling to comprehend how anyone could actually go along with this line of thinking. The more I read about people’s experiences the more I’m shocked about the goings on inside the walls of religious institutions. The corruption is beyond words and the fact that it’s all dressed up as a safe and loving environment is outrageous. Makes me appreciate my awareness around organised religion from an early age, already able to discern the hypocrisy.

  31. It is obvious that this manipulation of the law is an absolute disgrace and destroys people’s lives. The fact this hasn’t been the undoing of the Catholic Church baffles me.

  32. This is an important read Graeme, if we are to keep these abuses in front of us so that they don’t get swept under the table. It is great that at last many people are able to express what was before suppressed and is now truly being taken seriously. No organization should be exempt from the Law!

  33. Thank you for sharing your insight here Graeme. The description of the conversation you had the woman before she passed over is very sobering. The way sexual abuse is handled has huge repercussions for all of us. Those who have been subject to this abuse are often traumatised and those who commit these crimes are thoroughly disconnected from the truth of who they are. Huge reforms are needed to ensure these abuses stop.

  34. Thank you Graeme for this much needed and important blog. Today as I write a senior member of the Catholic Church has been charged with sexual offences. It feels to me this is only the start, the tip of the iceberg of what has truly been happening under the name of ‘God’s work’. For me it’s a chilling reminder that when we act in a way that is unloving or simply not true we contribute to an energy, a force that other people can also tap into. So understood this way we can say – every issue like this we are a crucial part of.

  35. Just today Cardinal Pell has been charged with offences to do with covering up the extent of sexual abuse and possibly with historic sexual offences himself. What absolutely flawed me was reading that of a class of 33 boys 12 committed suicide in one school where the priests were committing rape of children. To cover this up is as evil as the act itself.

  36. What you are exposing with these writings is beyond honouring to the many victims that have been silenced or mute for years after their abuse, to have a man of your stature and standing speak about these crimes is worth its weight in gold.

  37. The church has gotten away with so many things because it is a so called ‘religion’ and often people don’t think further than that and assume it is a holy place where things like respect, integrity and responsibility come naturally, yet, this is not the case. The word religion has been misused to represent the Christian Church; for true religion would not allow to be exempted from law and would not let confessions of sexual abuse been unreported and not acted on, it would not allow sexual abuse to go unnoticed. If we would take away the word religion we would come to see a organisation that is very corrupt and irresponsible.

  38. The fact that some of those very high up in the church have recently been accused of sexual abuse, the corruption and constant covering up has to speak more about what is truly at the foundations of the church. They have nothing to do with God.

  39. Let’s we stop for a minute and consider confession. It is amongst the main things in the catholic church. So, one of the main things of that ‘religion’ is what you did ‘wrong’, what you are ashamed of. So, the main communication verses around that. Is it there any space for your true beauty in it? Or is it just ugliness and then submission to it? These questions are relevant independently of the fact that you leave the confession box, do your penitence and you are under the illusion that you are clean, therefore no karma. So, confession confirms the pattern of movement you are in and says to you keep going. That religion is truly harming.

  40. There has to be more openness and transparency in the Church, especially the Catholic Church that has a very long history of covering up everything, especially sexual abuse. They have had autonomy for far too long with little if any regard or care for the people whose lives have been affected from sexual abuse in their childhood. It is a crime and the priests and perpetrators should be held accountable in the eyes of the law and not hide behind the church’s code of silence.

  41. Absolutely Graeme, no organisation should ever consider themselves above the law or exempt from any accountability for their actions – especially when it’s criminal behaviour they are engaging in. If the church and those guilty were held responsible and accountable for their actions rather than the secrecy and corruption of the cover up of sexual abuse we would see a very different outplay occur than the how things have been allowed to run in the past.

  42. This is such an important topic and one that is not spoken of at all. We need to make time for these types of conversations to be had. Because if we don’t, we will always create a society that wants to hide, be corrupt, doesn’t allow every issue that occurs to be seen and dealt with. Which is exactly what is happening now.

  43. Accountability knows no bounds, it cannot be hidden under the guise of a religious organisation, or any other organisation for that matter. Accountability is part of life for every one of us, no one is exempt.

  44. Any organisation that did not report sexual abuse or other abuses, organisations set up in the name of serving people, would be shut down. The arrogance of the church in keeping quiet is astounding.

  45. I couldn’t agree more, hiding behind the confessional or other similar methods is not on … no-one is above the law and when someone is abused those responsible must be held accountable no matter who they are.

  46. The church has a horrific history of covering up and not dealing with child abuse, what’s worse we as people we have not shouted from the rooftops this is wrong so in effect we have allowed them to get away with it.

  47. It is difficult to believe that any priest will report sexual abuse if its heard in the confession box. For when it has been reported outside the confession box that a priest have been found out to be sex abusers they get transferred to another area and they do it all over again. So to me it can be clearly seen reporting crime of a sexual nature is not seen as the duty of the “Roman catholic church”.

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