VATICAN CITY (CNS) – To protect the sacrament of reconciliation as a “channel of grace” for victims of sexual abuse, the Catholic Church must do a better job of educating priests on what to do if a victim recounts his abuse in the confessional and in the unlikely event that an abuser confesses, said Jesuit Father Hans Zollner.
“If the church did more to help confessors to be empathetic listeners as well as qualified interpreters of the moral teaching of the church, it would show more clearly that the sacrament of reconciliation can be an instrument in the fight against abuse. Father Zollner wrote on November 11. in The Tablet, the London-based Catholic newspaper.
“If the church is unable to better explain why it does not protect abusers or other serious criminals from justice – and why the seal can help protect vulnerable children and adults – state lawmakers might come to target the inviolability of the seal of confession. he wrote.
“If the church is unable to better explain why it does not protect abusers or other serious criminals from justice … state lawmakers may come to target the sanctity of the seal of confession . “
The Jesuit has been a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since its creation and President of the Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
Father Zollner’s article sparked debate in France after the publication in October of an independent commission report estimating that more than 330,000 children had been abused by church staff since the 1950s.
The report “sparked the question that had been raised after similar reports were published in Australia, Ireland, the United States and elsewhere: should it be mandatory for a priest who hears of sexual abuse of a minor in confession to report it to the secular authorities?
However, he wrote, there is no “convincing evidence that abuse would be avoided by removing the seal” from the confessional.
In the case of the sexual abuse crisis in France, Father Zollner wrote that there is no “convincing evidence that abuse would be avoided by removing the seal” from the confessional.
The Code of Canon Law absolutely prohibits a priest from revealing anything he has learned in the confessional for any reason. As Father Zollner wrote: “A priest cannot break the seal to save his own life, to protect his reputation, to save the life of another, or to aid the course of justice. Priests who violate the seal of confession are automatically excommunicated.
While the church’s poor record in preventing abuse and dealing with allegations has raised suspicion about its vigorous protection of confessional secrecy, the Jesuit said secrecy allows “people to feel free to say things in confession that they would not say anywhere else ”.
Historically and still today, he said, this “safe space” is used much more often by survivors and victims than by abusers.
“With the exception of prison chaplains, priests are very unlikely to hear a confession from a child sex abuser. Only one priest told me that he had heard the confession of an author – and it was only once, ”he wrote.
But, he said, “A victim of adult sexual abuse has pointed out to me that many victims feel guilty and find it extremely difficult to speak for the first time about the unspeakable. She fears that if you can’t be absolutely sure that what you say in confession will be kept private, one of the few safe places to start talking about an experience of abuse is lost.
“If you cannot be absolutely sure that what you say in confession will be kept private, one of the few safe places to start talking about an experience of abuse is possible may be lost.”
To help victims, protect the sacramental seal and promote justice, Father Zollner said, the Catholic Church should issue a new instruction for priests who hear confessions, spelling out things they need to know specifically about cases of confession. abuse or suspected abuse.
First, he said, it would “reaffirm the obligations to obey the laws to report abuse outside the confessional and it would also reaffirm the seal. This would emphasize the personal responsibility of the confessor ”, including“ the obligation to call on an abuser to stop the abuse, to report himself to statutory authorities and to seek therapeutic help ”.
The instruction would clearly state that “absolution for the sin of abuse can only be given if not only sincere contrition has been shown, but the will to right the wrong done has been demonstrated.”
“The instruction would also specify that in the case of a victim speaking of abuse, the confessor must listen with empathy and respect,” he said. “The priest could then offer to meet the person alleging abuse outside the confessional space and encourage him to contact therapists and lawyers. Adequate accompaniment must be provided, as many victims who speak out about abuse for the first time feel uncomfortable talking about what happened again, especially if it may pave the way for prosecution. judicial.
“The seal of confession creates a sacred space in which a penitent is totally free to present before God whatever is on his conscience and, when he shows contrition, to find forgiveness, reconciliation and healing”, did he declare. “That the seal was in the past a pretext for abuse and other crimes should not lead to the removal of what is a channel of grace. “
[Related: Sex and Confession: 5 helpful guidelines]