There are times when, reading the news or viewing media reports on television, that my blood pressure rises substantially (and it’s already high most days).
One such recent occasion occurred when I read of efforts in a number of states, including Kansas (where I currently live) to add clergy to the list of those required to report child sexual abuse when it comes to their attention. Church leaders—and not only those who are Catholic—oppose such an inclusion on the basis of “clergy-penitent privilege,” according to the news reports.
For Catholics, that means the confidentiality of the confessional.
As a mother and grandmother, I am appalled that bishops and priests would maintain such a barrier to the safety of children, and to ensuring justice is served and their trauma healed. But, as with all things, the clergy’s priority is to protect its own—tragically.
There is another solution, however, that need not be mandated by secular law: all priests and bishops should be required to withhold absolution during the sacrament of reconciliation to someone who confesses to abusing a child, sexually or otherwise, until that individual presents proof they have turned themselves in to the civil authorities.
If the penitent is so sincere about being forgiven for this horrendous sin against God’s innocents, taking responsibility and facing the consequences should be part of the process.
On the other hand, a person confessing to knowledge of such behavior—either by witnessing it first-hand or being told of it by another—should also be required to report the deed to authorities before receiving absolution, because refusing to properly report the crime makes that person an accessory to the deed.
The secrets must no longer be swept under the rug in the guise of divine forgiveness. Even in the old Baltimore Catechism, question 219 points out that there is a temporal punishment connected to our sins: “The Sacrament of Penance remits the eternal punishment due to sin, but it does not always remit the temporal punishment which God requires as satisfaction for our sins.”
That means that sins committed which bring harm to others—children, in this case—require the penitent take responsibility and make amends, including pleading guilty to a crime to the secular authorities and facing the possibility of a prison sentence.
Bishops not only in the U.S. but around the globe must push for this requirement, including for their own subordinate priests who may be guilty of similar crimes and rely on the protection of their diocesan or religious superiors. Withholding absolution would prevent them from presiding at Mass or administering other sacraments, if their conscience grasps the seriousness of their offense and their failure to take responsibility.
It is extremely difficult to put such matters in the hands of elected officials on the local, state, or federal level when church leaders raise such a fuss in objection. They may even threaten those lawmakers with excommunication or deny them participation in the sacraments if they do not comply with such requests—a clear misuse of authority on the church leaders’ part. It is for the church itself to establish clear guidelines—in canon law, preferably—to which there are no exceptions so that, going forward, the perpetrators of these heinous offenses, whether lay or clergy, will not be allowed to stroll casually into the confessional, bare their souls to the priest, and walk out again believing they have to do no more than say a few Hail Marys or Our Fathers to be rid of their sins.
That a loving God is willing to forgive all sinners cannot be denied. But that love, embodied in children, cannot be abused without taking responsibility. It doesn’t matter if it was a one-time “mistake” or a repeated habit: the church must step up and protect children by denying absolution to those who harm these little ones (and, for that matter, anyone who commits murder, or other mortal sins) until they submit themselves to the rightful justice. Rather than make a show of pleading not guilty then negotiating for a plea bargain and lesser sentence, they should ask forgiveness of the victim, accepting the full judgment of the courts without appeal, and serve the ordered sentence with humility and penitence.
Let this be the resolution sought for this ongoing issue, so the church can continue to serve its people with faith and care. ♦
Julie A. Ferraro has been a journalist for over 30 years, covering diverse beats for secular newspapers as well as writing for many Catholic publications. A mother and grandmother, she currently lives in Atchison, Kansas. Her column, “God ‘n Life,” appears regularly in Today’s American Catholic.