Battle lines in the struggle for justice for child sex abuse victims are drawn in Western Australia, only this time between two unlikely groups. In this State, adult survivors of child sexual abuse are are actually fighting politicians’ attempts to pass a law forcing Catholic and Orthodox priests to break the seal of confession and to report to statutory authorities any mention by a penitent of child sexual abuse.
Although politicians and many others understandably believe that removing the seal of confession between a priest and penitent would be a good thing, is this really likely to assist in ridding our society of the silent scourge of sexual abuse?
Some Australian States and territories clearly think so. South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory have already enacted similar laws as a response to Recommendation 16.26 made by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in its Final Report that make it a criminal offence for a priest to withhold abuse disclosures. Queensland is moving towards a similar law, while New South Wales has deferred any action.
While this course of action may seem a good thing in principle, it certainly won’t be in practice.
Reflect for a moment. Who uses the confessional? And why? It is commonly known that child abusers do not tend to visit the confessional. If they did, then receiving absolution for their sins would be conditionally dependent on them confessing their crimes to the statutory authorities. If this were to happen then that would be a win for both society and for governments. But the fact that it is now known that confessionals may be policed is likely to keep perpetrators more distant from the confessional than ever.
What most of society does not seem to have realised, and even most churchgoers, is that victims and survivors often visit the confessional, whether they are Catholic, Orthodox, non-Catholic, non-Orthodox, yes, even non-Christians. They do this because the seal of confession presents as a vital lifeline that aids recovery.
The seal offers victims a watertight place where they can be listened to without cost, where they can remain anonymous, and can decide what they are ready, and not ready, to share, and all of this in complete confidence. The confessional seal as it presently stands is the last remaining place of complete safety that can literally keep survivors alive and offer every abuse victim the chance to begin to heal.
Let us be clear: policing the seal will leave more victims failing to access a critical pathway to healing. This will leave some encaged in trauma, which in turn will mean fewer survivors being strong enough to face statutory authorities and any possible court process, which will result in more child abuse in society. Hardly a good result for any State Government.
How can I be so sure of this? Well, I am a survivor of extensive childhood sexual abuse perpetrated for several years by a school teacher. Grooming, shame and guilt, powerlessness, betrayal, ambivalence — these were just some of the ingredients contained within my childhood abuse.
As a non-Catholic teenager, I first disclosed my abuse under the seal of confession. At the time I was suicidal and had no one to turn to. It was the profound empathy of the priest in confession that day which literally began to turn my life around.
After a lengthy journey of recovery, I eventually visited the police which led to me becoming the key witness in a case which convicted a serial paedophile. Without the safety I had felt with the priest under the Seal of Confession, I would never have begun my healing journey, which would have left a prolific abuser free to continue to damage more children’s lives. The confessional seal saved not only my life, but in turn saved many other children from being abused.
Fortunately, the Upper House of the Western Australia Parliament has had the courage to refer the bill, already passed by the Lower House, to its Legislation Committee. This committee is now requesting written submissions from the public. And once again, we run into a problem. Anonymity. No absolute guarantee can be given by Parliament that complete confidentiality will transpire.
Today, I walk alongside victims of every age and culture. I have already been contacted by over a dozen survivors, mostly women, all of whom have been abused by a family member or friend and who use the confessional as their only safe place of discussion and healing. None of these people feel at liberty even to lodge their own submission to fight for privacy in the confessional because the government insist on a name and phone number for each submission.
They fear their name being linked to their story and someone somewhere at some point in the present or future finding out details. For some, this would feel worse than the original abuse itself. So already victims and survivors are being penalised and diminished in their healing journeys even before a law is passed.
Policing the seal of confession will lead to the State manipulating the safety of every victim’s narrative. It will strip survivors of their limited present-day control and increase fear of approaching a key source of hope and healing that is free of charge and available outside of working hours in every town and city.
Survivors would also be denied the opportunity to make their own decisions at their own pace should statutory authorities get involved. Note the words “manipulate”, “strip”, “fear”, and “denial” in these earlier sentences, a mirroring of childhood sexual abuse, only this time wrought by the State, all of which could damage a victims’ mental health.
No one questions the important work undertaken by the Royal Commission. However, its Final Report was unable to provide a full picture of the plague of child sexual abuse in Australia. Its remit addressed a mere fraction of historical abuse, when it is known that the vast majority of child abuse occurs beyond the boundaries of institutions and looks very different today than it did decades ago.
For State Governments to now use this Final Report as a template in 2020 for best practice of child protection is at best delusional, and at worst diabolical. Governments work best when they deal with crime, not with souls or sin, or the overriding of church teachings and traditions which bring healing and hope to the most vulnerable.
Governments have failed to consult across victim groups and yet force through legislation to police their pain-filled stories. This re-traumatising of society’s vulnerable adults also leaves children at risk when they in turn will fear to access the glass-panelled entry into the confessional, and yet many survivors today testify that confession is where they began, and sustain, their recovery journeys.
Australia is now unwittingly embracing regional government proposals that penalise those already wounded. These will leave victims further traumatised with the confessional’s doorway to hope forcibly slammed shut in their faces. This is a lose-lose situation in the long run for everyone — except for perpetrators.
This is why survivors of child sex abuse in Western Australia, having already been belittled and crushed in childhood, are battling their State Government to ensure protection and healing for children of the future.