Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson says he would break the seal of Confession

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?

47 comments to Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson says he would break the seal of Confession

  • This is just nuts. There are some things you just don’t do. Ever. No matter what.

  • Lynda

    The bishop ought to be defrocked. He is much worse than “an embarrassment”, he is a serious threat to the salvation of souls.

  • Jonathan

    In a way I hope that he does publicly break the seal so that he can be excommunicated.

  • Matthew Hazell

    This is almost beyond scandalous! Certain sections of the Australian government are already lobbying to pass laws that would make the seal of confession de facto illegal. I believe the term that describes Bishop Robinson most accurately here is “useful idiot”; it’s almost as if he would be happy to establish the Australian version of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

    May God preserve us from unfaithful bishops, and may God have mercy on Bishop Robinson!

  • Ioannes

    The hilarious thing is that this heterodox and publicity-seeking loose cannon is criticizing Cardinal Pell for not being a team player. Check this one out – in the same year (2008) that he was castigated by the Australian Bishops’ Conference, he was banned from Los Angeles (of all places) by Cardinal Mahoney (of all people).

  • Mike2

    Living in the UK I’m not all familiar with the situation in Australia but it would seem from the interview and some of the comments that it is no accident that the ABC decided to interview this particular bishop. Is this just one more example of the biased media using a known dissenter to make it appear that the Church is not playing fair on this issue and, indeed, is lead (in Australia) by someone who should not be trusted. ABC maybe cannot say that themsleves so the way they get to say it is to interview someone they know will say it. It’s a common device used by the media. The ABC must have loved this attack on the Pope: “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.”

  • Pedro

    Just listen to yourselves folks!

    Think about what you’re saying. You would put the welfare of a child, possibly even their life, at risk because of the seal of the confessional. How could you even consider such a thing? No rule can be that absolute.

    Can’t you see how obvious it is that the child’s welfare has to come first?

    • Pedro

      p.s. Imagine it was your child.

      • John Dare

        You’re wasting your time P.

        • Ioannes

          P and JD, you are both wasting your time. The seal of the confessional applies to even more serious crimes, such as murder, and Fr Henry Garnett SJ went to the scaffold for misprision of treason rather than break the seal. I’m getting a bit fed up having to defend the obvious against those whose philosophical outlook consists of knee-jerk reactions to whatever is in today’s news.

          • John Dare

            Its a rather abstract ‘obvious’ I, and knee jerk reaction to….news doesn’t come into it. It will be equally obvious that some people either don’t believe in a god, or can’t believe in a vengeful god.

            A continuing thread through all discussions on this site is that some believe that circumstances alter cases, and some believe in rules.

            In relation to both of my paras the underlying point is that someone (a person) made the rules. You think its God, I don’t. You seem to fear God, I think that any god has got to be better than the people who make the rules.

    • Bob Hayes

      Just a rational thought for a moment. Robinson says there are times when the seal of confession may be broken in the interest of ‘the greatest good’. If a priest does that, should a lawyer do the same when a client admits to a crime? Should an accountant do that when a client admits accounts are circumspect?

      • Pedro

        “should a lawyer do the same when a client admits to a crime? Should an accountant do that when a client admits accounts are circumspect?”

        Personally, I think “yes” and “yes”. In some limited circumstances they are and I don’t see any reason why those circumstances shouldn’t be greatly widened. If it’s a matter of protecting an innocent party then professional ethics should be entirely secondary.

        • Bob Hayes

          And should a doctor inform the police when a patient below the age of consent presents for treatment related to having had unlawful sexual intercourse?

        • Eric

          I am a solicitor. If a client admitted abusing a child to me (or if I had serious reasons to think that there was abuse), the authorities would be told. Abolutely no question. I can think of plenty of theoretical reasons why I should keep his terrible secret and on the face of it some of them seem perfectly plasuable. But when you come up against the reality of something terrible happening and the power in your hands to stop it, then basic human compassion takes over and the theory goes out of the window. I have never had such an admission myself (I work in commerical law), but a colleague working in family law has. There was some discusion in the office, resulting in the police being told within an hour of the confession. We were impressed by the sensitive way in which the police handled our tip-off, the client engaged another firm, we wrote-off £10,000 of unpaid invoices, and a child was removed from a dangerous situation. It was an outcome which I think we, by which I mean all the agencies and individuals involved, are able to take some pride in, but to act differently should have been nothing less than shamefull (although I have no doubt we would have been able to construct some great justification in law and morality as to why we should have kept this secret – afterall human beings are very very good at doing such things)

          • Joe C

            So Eric, if you had a client and he was arrested for a crime and in your prep for trial you found out he in fact was guilty would you stand up in court and tell the jury that or would you try and defend him? What if as a defense counsel you were put on the witness stand by a prosecutor and asked if he was guilty you would say yes?

            If so you may want to tell your clients this from the get go so they can find an attorney who will defend them.

          • Eric

            Joe C,

            We are talking about different things. I was talking about reporting a crime to the authorities that the authorities do not already know about. You are talking about providing a defence to a person already, arrested, charged and investigated.

            There is also the nature of a crime to be investigated. I would venture that there is a difference between a crime already committed where justice might be the only concern and one that is ongoing (like ongoing abuse) or planned in the future (like a confession that a bomb has been planted), where justice is not the only concern because individuals are still in danger.

            I would also add that I don’t practice criminal law, if anyone here does I’d be interesyed to get their take.

          • Jan

            Eric, I have worked in law firms all my life, and I am surprised that the person who divulged that information wasn’t struck off for breach of client privilege. Your firm must have covered up. There are plenty of lawyers who work for criminals who commit absolutely heinous crimes but they still have to respect client privilege. While I can understand it is a moral dilemma it goes with the job. What trust could any client have of your firm not to betray a confidence?

      • John Dare

        Bob, I suspect that you’re aware of the law on reporting crime for the acountancy trade, and I know that the best accountants invite dodgepots to shop elswhere. The shameful thing is that there seem to be few such in the trade.

  • Alex

    To quote a friend of mine, “I’d rather go to jail than to hell”.

    • John Dare

      maybe some priests are in a living hell in the situation that Pedro has outlined. Its a good job this stuff doesn’t get in the papers.

    • Eric

      If you think that God would send your to hell for putting the interests of a child first, then I would suggest that you have a rather low opinion of God. Do you really think God would do that?

  • Kinga Grzeczynska LLB

    Bishop Robinson (Emeritus) has made a grave mistake. According to Canon Law No 1388.1 if any Priest breaks the Seal of the Confession, The Apostolic See has a right to implement the action of automatic excommunication of the person, priest or laity.

    The Sacramental Seal is inviolable. It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other matter or for any other reason. Canon 983.1

    Priests have died in order to protect the confessions that they have heard.

    Perhaps the Bishop would like to correct himself and seriously consider retracting his statement.

    Kinga Grzeczynska

    • John Dare

      Kinga, if someone molested your child would canon law make the deed and its lack of prevention acceptable?

    • Fr Francis

      Compare and contrast:

      1.Bishop Robinson retired in July 2004 with health issues aged 67.

      2.Blessed Pope John-Paul II suffered from many health issues but did not retire. Once when he was asked about his health he said: “Below my neck, not so good. Above my neck – fine.”

      I suspect that with Bishop Robinson, his main problems were above his neck rather than below.

  • PlainJohn

    The Second Message of Our Lady at Garabandal, Spain ~ JUNE 18, 1965

    “Many cardinals, many bishops and many priests are on the road to perdition and are taking many souls with them. Less and less importance is being given to the Eucharist. You should turn the wrath of God away from yourselves by your efforts”.

  • Lynda

    It is not putting the welfare of an abuser over the welfare of a child. It is enabling people to confess their sins, no matter what they are, which entails being truly repentant, and being prepared to do what is necessary to show “a firm purpose of amendment”. A priest would likely insist a person goes to the police if he’s committed a very serious crime, otherwise he would not be showing “a firm purpose of amendment” and could not receive absolution. there is no point going to confession if one is not sincere, as one can’t receive absolution. If confession were not absolutely secret, it would not exist, it could not exist. Confession is necessary for the practice of the Catholic faith, which is a good for all of society. Without absolute secrecy, a priest or a malicious “confessor” could use the situation to blackmail or otherwise attack the other person.

    • John Dare

      He could do that anyway.

    • Pedro

      “A priest would likely insist a person goes to the police if he’s committed a very serious crime,”

      Yes, this gets trotted out every time this subject comes up.

      How many sex offenders have handed themselves into the police because their priest told them to? Hmm?

    • Eric

      “It is not putting the welfare of an abuser over the welfare of a child. ”

      yes it is. The rest of your post is a justification as to why the greater good requires the welfare of a child to take second place. Your logic there may be sound, but I am not prepared to sacrifice the welfare of one single child for any other aim however important and noble. Do you think Christ would be?

      • Jan

        Most priests do not know who the person is confessing to them. The priest is the intermediary between God and the penitent. If someone confesses murder, child molestation, theft or anything like that, the priest would counsel him to confess to the police, but the seal of confession is inviolate and a priest will go to prison rather than break the seal. Christ said, “Render unto Ceasar the things that are Ceasar’s and unto God the things that are God’s”. The seal of confession belongs to God. No priest is going to risk losing their soul by breaking the seal of confession. The same with a lay person who overhead that confession, they have to keep the seal inviolate as well. I know I would not risk my soul in that instance. No person is ever going to go to confession if they think the seal will be broken for any reason. Priests who are child abusers are not going to confess anyway because they cannot get absolution if they repeat the abuse. They know that.

  • SteveD

    Getting Catholics to think about confession in any context may be a good thing. it might remind them to avail themselves of the confessional occasionally.

  • spesalvi23

    It’s useless to talk about the Sacrament of Reconciliation with people who have no idea what it actually is.

    • Pedro

      It’s the Catholic “feel good” sacrament, where you can all tell yourselves how holy you’ve been for confessing in secret so that no one will ever know what you’ve been up to.

      Three Hail Marys and a Glory Be and you’re all back to being nice and clean and virtuous again. All ready to slip up again sometime, because we’re only frail, fallible, humans after all, in need of God’s forgiveness.

      Obviously you want to keep it secret. And if the occasional child gets harmed because of that secrecy, well how’s that more important than being sure the priest never tells _your_ secrets?

      Apparently its the sacrament which stops you from telling basic right from wrong any more.

      • Spesalvi23

        Thanks for proving my point so clearly.
        Superficial, shallow, stereotypical fringe knowledge with no understanding of Catholicism, or Christianity in general!
        Do you have experience with confession!? Do you know what is actually said; what exchange actually takes place?

      • Jan

        You’re talking utter rubbish. Any Catholic knows that if they confess a sin without the firm amendment not to commit that sin again it is not forgiven. So go and read up about the sacrament before saying anything further. You’ve got not a clue. Even if you go to confession anonymously it is not easy to accuse yourself of commiting sin, so it is obvious you have never been to confession in your life. Pedro, huh!

  • Robin Leslie

    Either the Confessional is inviolable or not! Confession ceases to be a Sacrament if it can be violated, and how can absolution continue to have any meaning if the seal of non-disclosure is
    broken. If Bishop Robinson doesn’t understand that the violation of the Confessional in the way he suggests will undo all the Sacraments then he should be laicized forthwith. No bishop should be either that naive or wilful.
    Both child-abuse and sexual abuse are serious offences but the emergence of mob violence and persecutory witch hunts arising from this particular phenomenon reminds us of both of the intrinsic violence of human beings and of the forms of collective violence (scapegoating:see Renee Girard)that emerge during periods of social conflict and disintegration through which the West is passing at the present time. Bishop Robinson is a persecutory victimizer himself.

  • James Hughes

    How did this clown ever become a bishop? More to the point why has he not been excommunicated already for spouting against church doctrine . The CDF needs to get a grip on people like Robinson. Confession is necessary for the saving of one’s soul and works precisely because the penitent knows his sins will never be disclosed to another.

  • Eric

    You make it sound like the breaking of the seal to protect innocent victims of a serious crime will end up destroying the Church.

    In reality the Church suffers much more damage by sticking to its guns here because it turn decent men and women both inside and outside the Church into enemies and damages the Church’s moral authority.

  • Lynda

    Breaking the seal of the sacrament of Confession does not protect anyone from any harm. It does, however, damage the priest who would do so, all of us Catholics, and also society at large. True, sincerely made confession means a person is seeking and gaining the grace necessary to combat his predilection to sin. Without confession, we are all more likely to sin, and become habitual sinners. Confession makes people more conscious of their sins, and more able and willing to live a less sinful life. A firm purpose of amendment is an essential element of confession, and if one had committed a very serious sin, which was also a crime, such as murder or rape of a child, this would involve reporting the crime to the appropriate civil authorities. A person who intended to continue to commit a certain sin, would not go to confession, or of they did it would not be sincere, and they would have gained nothing. A person who sexually abused a child would not go to confession if he were not repentant and prepared to give himself up. As I’ve already said, if there is no absolute secrecy, there can be no sacrament of confession. Confession is normally carried out so that the penitent is incognito – all penitents have a right to this. Quite apart from the fact that much greater harm would be done to society, without the freedom to practice one’s faith, which for Catholics necessarily involves Confession, and the fact that without confession, we would sin more, and those who are tempted to abuse children would be much more likely to do so, or to continue to do so – it is wholly unenforceable. People who suggest reporting of sins that are serious crimes to police by the priest, don’t understand confession, the priest’s sacred role and duty, and what is necessary to make Confession possible in the first place. For a priest to be liable to repeat anything outside the confessional would mean there could be no confession.

    • Eric

      “For a priest to be liable to repeat anything outside the confessional would mean there could be no confession.”

      I am not sure why this matters. You confess something which is not a serious crime and reason to think that children are in danger, the confession is kept secret and you benefit from the sacrement of confession just the same as before.

      A child rapist makes a confession and gets reported. He doesn’t get the sacrement of confession (who cares!) and the issue of his repeat offending is deal with by the fact that he gets locked up by the civil authorities.

  • Lynda

    For a priest to be liable to repeat anything heard during a Confession would mean there could be no Confession – period. Ever. For any Catholic. The meaning of the statement is clear from all the previous lines of my comment.

    • Jan

      Lynda, you are absolutely correct – no priest is ever going to risk the loss of his soul by breaking the seal of confession and, as you say, there would be no confession were he to break it.

      Eric posted earlier that his own law firm broke client privilege and turned someone into the police – normally they would be struck off for breaking client privilege as would a doctor.

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