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

  1. Abuse of any kind at every level needs to be exposed and those who are also covering up and supporting abusive behaviour are also accountable to the laws of the land and should be prosecuted.

    1. Absolutely agree Greg, why have we allowed abuse to continue, why do we let these organisations get away with horrific crimes, ‘ In some situations the Catholic Church claims it cannot be sued in civil courts.’

  2. We society have allowed the Roman Catholic Church to get away with gross misconduct for centuries and I would say that this is because in the middle ages The Roman Catholic Church ruled by using terror tactics which suppressed anyone who dared to stand up against them. To me the RCC is nothing more than a cruel dictatorship.

  3. It is utterly ridiculous how sometimes religious organisations treat us as if we still believe that the earth is flat.

  4. If there was any decency and respect for what the youth within our society need to mature into, i.e. the same respect-full adults, then if the preachers of the bible believed what they teach, there would not be any need for a cover-up or hiding behind the confessional walls. And adding to what you have shared Graeme, the movie Robin Hood 2018 shares that the church was up to sexual misadventure with children a long, long time ago!

  5. I actually had forgotten or hadn’t realised (before reading this blog) that the church is exempt from reporting sexual abuse. Perhaps I knew it somewhere deep down, but it hadn’t clicked what that meant. Through allowing people to confess & then not disclose the confession to the relevant authorities, the church really let’s abusers get away with it. We all know how horrible it is to carry something we have done wrong – we think about it a lot, sometimes we can’t eat because we feel so bad, can’t sleep etc. But when we share with a friend/ relative etc. and let it off our chest, the tension sometimes drops away. In the ritual of confession by the church, people are welcomed to let things off their chest and made to feel better because the belief is that if you tell the priest he will pray for you and god will forgive you. Sure, but what about the person you just abused? In this act, the abuser is falsely led to believe that whatever they are doing is going to be okay & no consequences are to follow. But we live in a world of energy, where everything is linked, cause and effect is inevitable and sooner or later the abuser will receive a lesson which will teach them that their behaviour is/was not okay.

    1. But why does the church still in many instances get away with murder, ‘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.’

  6. There is so much abuse coming from authoritative figures, sexual, physical, psychological, financial… the list can go on and on. We strive to achieve higher places in society because we don’t want to be taken advantage of, or because we want to take advantage of others. It’s a bit difficult to admit that, but the truth is that yes, actually can close our eyes and do things to exploit others for our own gratification.

  7. It is quite a stop to read what Jesus is reported to have said, as every child is inhibited and has stumbling blocks placed in front of them, and we see sexual abuse as the worst sort, but if we were honest we put these blocks up in so many ways that then inhibits children from staying connected to their hearts.

  8. “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 totally agree with you that the confessional cannot be used as an excuse to get away with crimes.

    1. It’s not just that they allowed it to go on they actively hid and moved known sexual offenders to unsuspecting towns and villages. It’s appalling what has been allowed to happen.

  9. I completely agree that it does not make sense for any religious organisation to be exempt from the laws of the land and this is completely the opposite from what religion should be about.

  10. What is spoken to here is gross abuse of power down the ages and now it’s ingrained to such a degree that the institutions involved consider themselves above the law … this cannot be, people who have been loyal to those institutions are being abused and we cannot stand by and allow this, so it’s great we are now having much more open discussions about sexual abuse and holding everyone accountable for it no matter who they may be, it’s high time we did and we need to ensure we do not let anyone put any obstacles in the way of implementing this and hold those who do to account.

  11. There are so many decent and well meaning people in the catholic church system that are having to deal with the consequences of the few who use that system for their own un-loving and destructive ways. Perhaps it is the system that fosters such ways, allows them to be, and perhaps it is this that is appealing to those who seek a place to express the agony that they are experiencing within. But, in my view, I can see how it will be those who hold true to the basic fundamentals of human decency that will initiate genuine change from inside this institution, because they are the ones who will see what needs to be changed the most.

  12. The powerful exposure is that we are confronted with our own silence, meaning our comfort, those areas that we are not willing to stand up in full. So the moment when true expression is needed, we fall short by our will because of those pockets. That is why we can only truly evolve when we choose to let go of those comfort pockets and truly stand for truth with all the consequences that follow.

  13. Metaphorically speaking if we push stuff under the carpet then it is inevitable we will stand on a rotten foundation. If any business, religion or organisation are founded on this bedrock of corruption then no matter the ‘good’ they preach, the energetic quality of what is delivered will be from this one and same source and not from the love and care they may otherwise expound.

  14. Ordained ministers or priests of the Catholic Church should not be exempt from the law, you cannot have one rule for some and another for others. If the law has been broken then the appropriate punishment has to be accepted, to be punished to a lifetime of prayer is a far lesser punishment with no true acknowledgement of wrong doing. I feel it is time the Catholic Church stepped into the 21st century and understood that transparency and equality is everything.

    1. Yes, the catholic church needs to be responsible, and not think it is above the law, ‘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.’

  15. “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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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?

    1. Clearly many people hate the fact that the catholic church has allowed abuse, and allowed the abuse to continue, so why has nothing been done to stop the abuse?

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

    1. It is great that Graeme is exposing what goes on in these establishments, and saying no more to the church allowing sexual abuse.

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

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. Accountability is awesome. Always a returning and deepening of love. The accountability we take in our daily lives is that which will impact the accountability of a large organization such as the Catholic Church.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

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