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Australia's child abuse scandal hits confessional

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BRISBANE -- A sacred tenet of the Catholic Church which survived at least one millennium is under attack in Australia this week as the nation ponders whether it's time to break the sacred seal of the confessional.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced on Monday a federal royal commission into child sexual abuse after yet another round of allegations against the Catholic Church.

But this probe which could continue for years and will cost tens of millions of dollars will not limit itself to the Catholics.

Pedophilia in Australia has ben felt across almost every human hive from the family home to a range of churches, foster homes, detention centres, the Scouts and even police youth clubs.

To finally confront this insidious problem in a royal commission with all its vast powers to summons witnesses, cross examine under oath, offer indemnities and seize documents is in itself an extraordinary act -- Australia has only held 130 royal commissions since it became a nation at the start of the 20th century.

The most fascinating aspect of this royal commission, a forum which can trace its antecedents all the way back to the 11th century and the Domesday Book, is that it's on course to collide with another relic of the medieval era -- the sacred seal of the confessional.

Australia's leading Catholic prelate Cardinal George Pell, who remains a loyal lieutenant Pope Benedict XVI, shows no signs of wavering in his commitment to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

"If the priest knows beforehand about such a situation (confessions of child molestation), the priest should refuse to hear the confession," he advises.

But the cardinal has some heavy hitters lining up against him. They include a handful of Catholic MPs expressing public discomfort at the idea of allowing paedophiles to discuss their crimes safe in the knowledge authorities won't be alerted.

While there are (as always) a few hysterical voices rising on both sides of the argument, most entering the debate are conscious of the role of the confessional which served a useful function hundreds of years before psychiatrists and psychologists appeared to mend our mental wounds.

New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell, an "imperfect Catholic" by his own admission, kept a measured tone in State Parliament this week while making his case.

He comprehended the importance of the sacrament of confession but believed in the 21st century there were limits to the protections it offered: "I struggle to understand that if a priest confesses to another priest that he has been involved in pedophile activities, that that information should not be brought to police.''

Federal Opposition MP Christopher Pyne agreed: "If a priest hears in a confessional a crime, especially a crime against a minor, the priest has the responsibility in my view to report that to the appropriate authorities. In this case the police because the church nor the priests should be above the law.''

Pyne, a father of four, said he didn't believe it permissible to defend a person after becoming aware that person had committed a crime against a child.

South Australian Independent senator Nick Xenophon said the very idea of the confidential confessional in matters of serious crime belonged to the dark ages. "This is a medieval law that needs to change in the 21st century.''

Retired Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, in open conflict with Pell on a range of issues, made one of the more interesting points in the debate.

A pedophile familiar with the culture of the Catholic Church would know full well that confessing to harming a child would not, in normal circumstances, result in a gentle reprimand, a penance of three Hail Mary's and a directive to "go and sin no more.''

With an honourable priest behind the confessional curtain all sorts of hell would break loose in the event of such a revelation, including a demand the criminal hand themselves over to authorities.

Bishop Robinson also noted the entire debate might be moot. Few pedophiles readily admit anything, to anybody.

"Offenders in this field, in pedophilia, do not go to confession and confess," Bishop Robinson said.

Michael Madigan is the Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 16, 2012 A14

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