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Breaking confession seal may not help prevent abuse: bishops

Phil Pennington, Reporter

New Zealand Catholic Bishops say there is no evidence that breaking the seal of confession would keep children safer.

Australian states are moving to prosecute priests who don't report confessions of child sex abuse, despite opposition from the church.

"Confession is often not understood," the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference said in a statement to RNZ today.

"In many cases the one making a confession remains unidentified. In any case, as has been said by members of the Church in Australia, we note that there is no evidence to suggest that abolition of the seal of confession would genuinely make environments safer for children."

Catholics are regulated by canon law, which states that the "sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason".

A priest who breaks the seal of confession is subject to the Church's toughest penalty, automatic excommunication, and only the Pope can reverse that.

The bishops conference said it was considering how its Australian counterpart was responding to the Royal Commission's recommendations and noted it had set up an implementation advisory group.

"The integrity of the Church's sacraments can sit easily alongside the robust, professionally supervised safeguarding policies the Church puts in place to protect children," the New Zealand bishops conference said.

The church here also had guidelines for preventing and responding to sex abuse that applied to all dioceses, religious orders and Catholic agencies, the bishops said.

They also drew a parallel with doctors.

"Our understanding is that any legal move by a government to impose mandatory reporting by health professionals of clients who have abused children becomes a hotly debated and contested issue.

"Many health professionals argue that client confidentiality is a crucial factor in helping reduce child abuse, as it enables those at risk of abusing to seek the necessary professional help. That professional position warrants very careful consideration."

There have been many documented cases worldwide of priests sexually abusing children in the confessional, then getting the child to confess to gain absolution.

Chrissie Foster, whose two daughters were raped by their local priest, has slammed the Australian bishops' position on confession in a commentary in the Sydney Morning Herald this week.

She said the best argument for breaking the confession was a sworn affidavit by Catholic priest Michael McArdle - made public - in which he stated he had confessed to sexually assaulting children 1500 times to 30 different priests over a 25-year period in face-to-face confessions.

In Australian Capital Territory, the confessional has been exempt from mandatory child abuse reporting laws, but from March 2019, priests must report to the police or risk prosecution.

South Australia is moving the same way, and other states could follow, in the wake of the federal government moving to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into child sex abuse.

Another contentious recommendation in Australia is for optional celibacy for priests.

The New Zealand bishops said it was not proven this would cut down on child sex abuse.

"The large majority of sexual abuse in any society is perpetrated by adults known to the biological parents of the child," their statement read.

"No scientific research we are aware of suggests that those abusing adults happen to be celibates. It is true, however, that in other contexts in the Church, celibacy is being discussed and this is happening with Pope Francis' knowledge."

Some research, such as in Australia by Professor Des Cahill and Dr Peter Wilkinson, and in the US by Richard Sipe and Tom Doyle, has drawn a strong connection between imposed celibacy and child sex abuse.

Other researchers have rejected this. The Catholic Church has been historically more inclined to link homosexuality with child sex abuse.

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