Legal threats to the seal of confession are challenging the Church to get serious about clerical sex abuse

Failures, either perceived or real, or sometimes with elements of both, tend to bring about disasters from the perspective of the parties held responsible for those failures. 

The weakness of the Weimar Republic, for instance, helped pave the way for Adolf Hitler; the inability of Hoovervilles to put a dent in the Great Depression created the context in which Franklin Roosevelt swept to power and held it for the next 12 years.

Right now, Catholicism is learning the same bitter lesson in a growing number of countries, where even the seal of confession is no longer untouchable from the point of view of civil and criminal law because of the Church’s perceived inability to come to terms successfully with its clerical sexual abuse scandals.

Already, several Australian jurisdictions have passed laws requiring Catholic clergy to report any accusations of sexual abuse of minors, including reports they may hear while administering the sacrament of confession.

 “Make no mistake, priests who have knowledge or suspicion of child sex abuse should report that to police, and failure to do so must be treated as a crime,” said Simone McGurk, minister for child protection in the state of Western Australia.

While those laws have drawn near universal condemnation from bishops and pastors, some theologians have nevertheless defended them, arguing that there’s a distinction between the confession of a sin in the context of the sacrament and other communications about potential crimes that may occur in the same space but which don’t carry the same sacramental standing.

In 2005, Ireland passed a similar law at the federal level, though it has yet to take effect due to concerns that inaccurate or malicious allegations could unjustly tarnish someone’s reputation. In the United States, there have been tentative efforts to test the limits of the seal, though so far courts have upheld its inviolability on the grounds of church/state separation.

Understandably, even many Catholics outraged by the abuse scandals balk at legislating away a cherished piece of the Church’s belief and practice for which martyrs have died over the centuries. It’s difficult to imagine that the press to roll back the seal could make any serious headway right now outside a handful of nations where the abuse crisis has been the most intense.

Still, here’s the thing: The list of countries where such measures could plausibly move from unthinkable to politically tenable is growing. Right now, for instance, a plebiscite to erode the seal of the confessional in Chile might draw surprisingly strong support for a traditionally Catholic nation.

What’s the common term here? However outrageous ordinary Catholics may find such measures to be, at bottom the Church arguably has no one to blame but itself.

The clerical abuse scandals erupted in the United States in 2002/2003, and in Ireland and other parts of Europe in 2009/2010. 

Today they’re cresting in Chile, and meanwhile America is back in the headlines due to the case of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick — badly exacerbated in the McCarrick case by the mantra of “everyone knew,” combined with what appears to be a systemic failure to do anything about it.

The U.S. bishops, to their credit, have vowed to pursue the full truth of who knew what when, and what they did or didn’t do, but the common-sense reaction of many ordinary American Catholics can’t help focusing on why a pattern of behavior now being casually described as common knowledge went unchecked for so long.

Every time when these scandals erupt, Church leaders issue soothing statements about how these failures of the past were terrible, but they are in the past, and the Church today has turned over a new leaf. 

Such assurances are beginning to ring hollow, especially in light of the fact that senior officials implicated in the scandals remain in power today, making the Church’s commitment to “zero tolerance” appear shaky to many people not just 50 years ago but right now, today.

In other words, the press to hold the Church accountable from the outside, using the instruments of civil and criminal law rather than properly ecclesiastical tools, is related to a widespread perception that’s mounted over the course of almost two decades that Catholicism simply can’t be trusted to reform itself.

Pope Francis, the pope of mercy, is famously passionate about the sacrament of confession. Hearing confessions has become a staple of his schedule when he makes parish visits in Rome, and on Good Fridays in Lent he not only hears confessions in St. Peter’s Basilica, but he makes one himself to set a good example.

It’s reasonable to suppose, therefore, that the pontiff and his team have a lively concern about legal efforts around the world to intrude on the sanctity of the sacrament. 

What those papal advisers may wish to consider is that responding effectively to those efforts may not be, in the first place, a matter of making good theological arguments — it may require instead dramatic action on the abuse scandals in ways that might reassure an anxious public that the sacraments don’t have to be gutted to convince the Church to act.