ROME—If there are two things that devout Catholics know will always be part of the church, they are celibacy for priests and confession for sinners.
That’s why a new report by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, which recommends that these cornerstones of Catholicism be eliminated, in the case of celibacy, and altered, in the case of confession, will likely have zero impact.
The final report is the product of an inquiry that began in 2012 and ended last week. It is based on 42,041 phone calls, 25,964 letters and emails and 8,013 private sessions in which accusations of child sex abuse across thousands of religious and secular institutions were detailed by victims.
The commission also held 57 public hearings during which those with alleged knowledge of abuse were questioned at length—including one multi-day hearing with the Vatican’s former third-in-command Cardinal George Pell, who was later accused of perpetrating abuse on minors, and who returned to Australia to face charges last summer.
The voluminous final report, which has 115 pages of recommendations, is painstakingly detailed but seems somewhat oblivious to fact that the Catholic Church is not about to make doctrinal changes.
In one section, the commission suggests that the Holy See should lift the veil of secrecy on confession and rethink what happens when “information received from a child during the sacrament of reconciliation that they have been sexually abused is covered by the seal of confession.”
In essence, the commission asks that the church take a secular approach to the sacrament of confession, which is one of the most important doctrinal devices for Catholics to navigate the rules of their faith. Instead, the commission would like confession to be negotiable, which is misunderstanding what it is all about. “If a person confesses during the sacrament of reconciliation to perpetrating child sexual abuse, absolution can and should be withheld until they report themselves to civil authorities,” the commission suggests.
If history is any guide, that’s probably not going to happen.
One aspect of confession that does seem a possible area for change is a logistical detail in order to avoid situations where vulnerable children are alone with lecherous men. “The Commission asks that Religious institutions which have a rite of religious confession for children should implement a policy that requires the rite only be conducted in an open space within the clear line of sight of another adult. The policy should specify that, if another adult is not available, the rite of religious confession for the child should not be performed.”
The commission also hashes over long-debated issues in how child sex-abuse crimes are reported and whether bishops should be compelled to turn abusive priests over to secular authorities rather than disciplining them within the church’s legal system.
Again, history would imply that the church has no intention of turning their own in. As recently as September, the Vatican whisked a priest accused of child pornography back to Rome when secular authorities in the U.S. and Canada asked that his immunity be lifted.
In the report, the commission then steps into highly controversial territory by suggesting that if priests weren’t required to be celibate, they might be less likely to abuse little kids.
“The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should request the Holy See to consider introducing voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy,” the commission writes. “All Catholic religious institutes in Australia, in consultation with their international leadership and the Holy See as required, should implement measures to address the risks of harm to children and the potential psychological and sexual dysfunction associated with a celibate rule of religious life. This should include consideration of whether and how existing models of religious life could be modified to facilitate alternative forms of association, shorter terms of celibate commitment, and/or voluntary celibacy (where that is consistent with the form of association that has been chosen).”
But this recommendation glosses over the basic fact that pedophila and child sex abuse aren’t part of a healthy sex life, so theoretically predatory priests would still be abusers of children even if they could have sex without breaking the rules of the church. There is little in the report to suggest a better system of identifying those with psychological issues that leads to pedophilia, or whether or not pedophiles are attracted to the priesthood and should be identified and prohibited from the vocation.
Father James Martin, an American priest and author tweeted a reaction echoed by many clergy. “Sadly, this is not going to help at all. Most sexual abuse occurs within families, often with parents abusing children. Being celibate does not make you an abuser any more than being a parent does.”
The report does suggest a “national approach to the selection, screening and training of candidates for ordination in the Anglican Church,” and there are recommendations for scrapping secrecy rules among Jewish and Jehovah’s Witness houses of worship.
But the Catholic Church gets the bulk of the attention, with more than half of all the recommendations aimed at it.
The Vatican referred the matter to the Australian Catholic church when asked for comment. In an interview with Australia’s ABC news channel, Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney described many of the recommendations as “distraction.”
“I think any proposal to effectively stop the practice of confession in Australia would be a real hurt to all Catholics and Orthodox Christians,” he said. “And I don’t think it would help any young person.”
Even if these recommendations end up falling on the deaf ears of those with power among the institutions in question, it is even more certain that not talking about these crimes will do even less to protect children.