Celibacy and confession: is that all they said?

Untold trauma for those retelling and reliving stories of child sexual abuse, secondary effects on their family and friends, as well as those who listened to countless hours of the horrific details of what happened, five years and five hundred million dollars later, and what do we have to show for it?  A proposal that celibacy and confession should be scrapped, and not much else.

At least, that’s what those reporting on the outcome of the child abuse Royal Commission would have us believe following the handing down of the Commission’s final report and findings last week.  “Royal Commission moves to smash celibacy, confession in Catholic church,” read one headline.  “Celibacy and confessional overhaul proposed in child sex abuse findings,” read another.  Many of the articles described the Commission’s recommendations about making celibacy optional for priests and religious and requiring mandatory reporting even in the context of sacramental confession as the “key findings” of the Royal Commission, despite there being 409 recommendations made in total, 189 of them revealed for the first time in this final report and the Royal Commission dedicating just 66 pages of its 7551-page report to those issues. 

For those doing the maths, this means that the media has largely focused on less than one percent of the Royal Commission’s report and the recommendations made by it when reporting on the outcome.

There is a real danger in focussing on the recommendations that have to do with celibacy and confession, both for those of us “within the tent” of Catholicism and those outside.

The key danger is that an inappropriate focus on these issues blinds us to the other major recommendations made by the Commission.  Out of the new ones proposed in the final report, there are some others that caught my eye in being particularly meaningful in their potential to make a real difference in child safety.

One of these is that a national study on child maltreatment across both institutional and non-institutional settings be conducted, allowing Australia to have a picture not only of the scale of the prevalence of abuse in institutions, but also in familial settings.

Another is that federal, state and territory governments require that all institutions that conduct work on their behalf adhere to the “Child Safe Standards” detailed in the Royal Commission report, effectively meaning a uniform, national standard for child safety will be applicable.

There are significant recommendations tackling the increasing problem of abuse that begins online, another set enabling the sharing of information across jurisdictions and agencies, the provision of additional services to provide health and welfare, legal and other assistance to survivors, and specific recommendations designed to protect children in immigration detention.

The danger for those who are not Catholic is that they listen to the reports about confession and celibacy and presume that the Commission’s findings are not relevant to them; that what the Commission has to say about child safety is limited solely to those quaint and archaic practices that belong to the diminishing number of Australians who still believe in sky fairies.  For those who are not only non-Catholic, but anti-Catholic, there is the added danger that they not only ignore the Commission’s work, but use it as a means to push their own agenda unrelated to the safety of children; already, we are hearing calls to shut down Catholic schools, remove the charitable status of faith-based institutions and more.

Both of these presume that the majority of Australians have nothing to learn from the Commission, and that is dangerously untrue.

But there is also a risk of focussing on confession and celibacy that applies specifically to Catholics: we can look at these two recommendations, and a couple of others that are so caught up in the identity of the Church as Christ Himself instituted, and dismiss the Royal Commission’s findings as being completely unacceptable.  If we focus on what it has to say about the non-negotiable nature of the confessional seal, we too can presume that the Royal Commission has nothing to say to us and dismiss all of its work as a result.  That too would be dangerously untrue.

The only appropriate response is to look carefully at what the Commission has to say, particularly to the Church, consider it and respond.  Yes, there will be some things that we simply cannot do without changing the nature of the Church or the sacraments, but such recommendations are very few.  For the most part, what the Commission has recommended is not only doable, but already being done in the Catholic Church and its agencies.

In the coming weeks, we will begin to slowly unpack this important report.  Stay tuned.

Monica Doumit, editor

Monday, 18 December 2017 05:23 Written by 


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in CathTalk blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of all members of that of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.