Geoffrey Robinson, Emeritus Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, has stated on ABC News that he would break the seal of confession to report what a victim of child abuse said to the police, without their co-operation if necessary. Bishop Robinson’s exact words in his interview with ABC were:
‘I would be prepared to break the seal of confessional because you have to weigh up the greatest good, and here the greatest good is surely the protection of innocent people.’
Here’s the full transcript of his interview:
GEOFFREY ROBINSON: I’m not sure how useful it would be. Offenders in this field, in paedophilia, do not go to confession and confess. They’ve convinced themselves that what they’re doing is right, there’s an extraordinary amount of distorted thinking that goes on.
And also I think they’re afraid of what the priest would say to them. That he would not simply, you know, give them absolution. He would make, you know, all sorts of demands on them.
So I really don’t think that it would achieve everything that a lot of people seem to hope for from it.
TIM PALMER: What if it were a matter of a victim, a person of identifiably tender years coming in and describing something that constituted assault. What would your view be of that then?
GEOFFREY ROBINSON: I would listen to them, find out what I could there, and then I would ask them to give me permission to refer the matter.
You know, that would be my first way, to get them to give me permission because in any case, if I can’t give the name of the victim to the police then there’s not a great deal the police can do. Even if I gave them the name of the alleged offender, there’s not much they can do without having the victim.
So that would be my, always be my first step, to try to get the victim to give me permission to speak to the police.
TIM PALMER: Let’s say these are serious allegations. What would be your next step if you can’t get that cooperation?
GEOFFREY ROBINSON: If the person won’t go that far then I would have to make a decision, and if I really thought that young people were at serious risk here then I would speak to the police.
TIM PALMER: You would break the seal of confession?
GEOFFREY ROBINSON: Well, you know, I’d have to weigh a lot of things up – did I know the name of the alleged offender? Did I know the name of the alleged victim? If I didn’t, if it’s simply someone who comes into confessional who’s not known to me, then obviously I can’t tell the police that.
I would be prepared to break the seal of confessional because you have to weigh up the greatest good, and here the greatest good is surely the protection of innocent people.
TIM PALMER: Do you think that that could become part of the church’s protocol, should become part of the church’s protocol, that weighing up things, priest be at least given the discretion to break the seal of – or be encouraged to break the seal of confession if, for example, a victim comes in and describes a sexual assault?
GEOFFREY ROBINSON: The major problem the Australian bishops have in dealing with this entire issue is that their hands are tied. Most of the changes that are needed must come from the Pope, and if he won’t move, then the Australian bishops have their hands tied.
The chances of getting the Pope to say that priests could break the seal of confessional are, well, nil.
TIM PALMER: I’m aware you didn’t see George Pell’s full response yesterday, but what do you make of Archbishop George Pell’s position on these issues?
GEOFFREY ROBINSON: Um… this is a difficult one. He’s not a team player, he never has been. Now on this subject too he’s not consulting with anyone else, he’s simply doing his own thing. I personally believe he’s doing it very badly indeed and I think the other Australian bishops, as one of the very first questions they need to face, they’ve got to confront him and determine who it is that speaks in their name and who doesn’t.
TIM PALMER: You seem to be suggesting he’s an embarrassment almost to the other bishops.
GEOFFREY ROBINSON: Well the other bishops would have to speak for themselves but I have to say that on this subject he’s a great embarrassment to me and to a lot of good Catholic people.
Protect the Pope comment: In 2008 the Australian Bishops Conference issued the following warning about statements made by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in the light of the book he wrote, ‘Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church’ :
‘The book’s questioning of the authority of the Church is connected to Bishop Robinson’s uncertainty about the knowledge and authority of Christ himself. Catholics believe that the Church, founded by Christ, is endowed by him with a teaching office which endures through time. This is why the Church’s Magisterium teaches the truth authoritatively in the name of Christ. The book casts doubt upon these teachings. This leads in turn to the questioning of Catholic teaching on, among other things, the nature of Tradition, the inspiration of the Holy Scripture, the infallibility of the Councils and the Pope, the authority of the Creeds, the nature of the ministerial priesthood and central elements of the Church’s moral teaching.’
Let’s look at the point made by Bishop Robinson – would children be protected if Bishop Robinson unilaterally reported what a victim said to the police?
Maybe in one instance, but the moment Catholics learnt that the seal of the confessional was no longer inviolate, many would lose the freedom given by absolute confidentiality to talk about these most sensitive, painful wounds in their lives. The priest would hope to get to the point where the victim would agree to report the crime themselves to the police. But to force the issue by breaking the confidence of the victim is an appalling prospect.
The Catechism explains the importance of the seal of confession as follows:
Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives.72 This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the “sacramental seal,” because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament. (CCC 1467)
What Bishop Robinson is advocating would lead to his automatic excommunication:
Can. 1388 §1 A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal, incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; he who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the offence.
How does the Holy See deal with a bishop who is publicly repudiating the fundamental laws and principles of the Church?