The decision of the Victorian government to force Catholic priests to break the seal (secrecy) of the confessional is the most recent example of symbolic politics.  Meaning it is a gesture which will have scant practical effect and could be counter-productive but is guaranteed to attract substantial publicity.

The Catholic Church has taught for centuries that a penitent can confess his or her sins to a priest at the confessional and seek forgiveness in the eyes of God.  Genuine contrition is required along with a vow to sin no more.  The sacrament is usually associated with a requirement that the penitent undertake certain acts to demonstrate their contrition.

The sacrament of confession invariably takes place in secret. The confessor (priest) does not know the identity of a sinner.  In any event, Catholic priests are required not to divulge what they hear in the confessional under threat of dismissal.  This is what Daniel Andrews’ government wants to end.

The Victorian government, along with some other State and Territory governments, has decided to compel priests to report to police any confession they hear in which a penitent confesses to one or more acts of pedophilia.  The symbolism is of a government getting even tougher on perpetrators of this crime.

However, the reality is somewhat different. There is no evidence that pedophiles confess their crimes to priests in confession.  It is common knowledge that pedophilia is very much a secret crime engaged by an adult (usually a male) against a child. It is not something that is commonly discussed outside a pedophile ring, if such a ring happens to exist.

If pedophilia was confessed to a priest, the offender would certainly be required to self-report the crime before forgiveness, in the eyes of God, was obtained.  Such an event is most unlikely to happen. But it would be even less likely to take place if the pedophile knew that his or her crimes would be reported to the authorities.  This would be an act akin to self-reporting to police.

The coverage of the Andrews’ government’s proposed legislation was accompanied, on the ABC PM program last Wednesday, by a comment from Chrissie Foster.  Two of her daughters were assaulted by a Catholic priest, Kevin O’Donnell, in Melbourne between 1987 and 1993.  In 1995, O’Donnell pleaded guilty to child sexual assault between the years 1946 and 1977. There is no evidence that O’Donnell ever confessed his crimes to any priest.

Ms Foster told the ABC that she supported mandatory reporting of child sexual assault including the breaking of the confessional seal.  She added: “If we look at the McArdle case in Queensland in 2003, he made an affidavit where he stated that he had confessed 1,500 times to 30 different priests over a 25 year period and they all said: ‘Go home and pray’.  That’s not something we want to see.”

No, it is not.  But did this ever happen?  Michael McArdle claims to have confessed to the sin of child sexual assault once a week for a quarter of a century to 30 different fellow priests.  It would be an extraordinary coincidence for so many priests to give exactly the same advice over so many years to one person.  McArdle did not even name one of his (alleged) confessors.

So how did the story come about?  Well, as reported in the media at the time, McArdle pleaded guilty to multiple cases of child sexual assault and received a hefty sentence. He took an action in the Queensland Court of Appeal to have his jail time reduced.  In the process, McArdle filed an affidavit claiming that he had confessed his crimes to 30 priests but none had told him to self-report to police.

It was a way of blaming others for his continuing criminality.  For the record, the Queensland Court of Appeal did not query McArdle or his legal counsel about the claims in his affidavit and his appeal for a reduced sentence was dismissed. Put simply, McArdle’s claim was not taken seriously.

The one-time priest Gerard Ridsdale, perhaps Australia’s most notorious pederast, told the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that, during his years of offending, he never went to confession.

The journalist Paul Bongiorno, when a priest in 1971, shared accommodation with Ridsdale in Warrnambool.  In May 2015, Bongiorno told ABC Radio National that Ridsdale successfully hid his offending from his fellow priests.  Since Ridsdale was so secretive while living in the presbytery, why would he talk to a priest about his crimes in the confessional?  As we know, he didn’t.

The Royal Commission did not challenge Ridsdale’s testimony that he never went to confession.  And it did not even address the claims made by McArdle’s self-serving affidavit.  The McArdle case does not give strength to the Victoria government’s decision in this instance.

The proposed Victorian legislation has engendered understandable interest in sections of the media.  On ABC Melbourne Radio on Wednesday, presenter Jon Faine created attention when he asked Peter Comensoli, the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, whether he was prepared to go to jail for refusing to break the seal of confession. Comensoli replied: “I’ll say for myself, yes.”

On Radio National Breakfast on Thursday, presenter Patricia Karvelas prodded Luke Donnellan, Victoria’s Minister for Child Protection, into saying that if necessary the likes of Comensoli would be prosecuted and, if convicted, jailed.

Sure, it’s a big story. For now, at least.  But the likelihood of Comensoli hearing a confession of a pedophile which, when not reported to police, leads to a prosecution and jail is all but fanciful.

Meanwhile the confidentiality between a lawyer and his or her client will continue to be protected by Victorian legislation.  Which means that it will be a crime for a priest not to report a pedophile – but not for a lawyer.

And that’s the problem with symbolic politics.  The Victorian government is giving comfort to the anti-Catholic sectarians in our midst without bringing about a situation where a pedophile is likely to be identified or a child protected.

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Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au

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