Evil Hid Behind Handy Seal Of Confession
AN ARTICLE BY CHRISSIE FOSTER WRITING FOR ‘THE AUSTRALIAN
(Chrissie Foster is co-author with Paul Kennedy of ‘Hell on the Way to Heaven’).
This week saw the publication of the Criminal Justice report by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It calls for sweeping change to the Catholic Church’s seal of confession. The confessional seal can be hideous: it has been proven to be so in the case of former Catholic priest Michael McArdle and shows emphatically why change is needed. This case is not from some far-away Third World country; it is from here in Australia, in Queensland. It is an expose of blatant criminal behaviour that can be hidden by the confessional seal — a noxious secret between a priest and a pedophile colleague that facilitates and enables heinous crimes to continue and be swept under the carpet at the expense of children, their lives and their wellbeing, all of which neither sinner nor holy forgiver give a damn about.
It is rare to obtain powerful insight into a pedophile’s private, secret confessions because the “good” priest will not tell and neither will the criminal priest … usually. That’s what makes the Mc¬Ardle case gold; this one example we have needs careful examination because it exposes what happens behind the private and closed seal of the confessional for criminal child clergy rapists. McArdle, after pleading guilty in a Queensland court to sexually abusing children, made an affidavit in 2004 stating that he had confessed 1500 times to molesting children to 30 priests across 25 years. After being forgiven 1500 times for his regular criminal offending in face-to-face confessions with his fellow 30 priests, he was told to “go home and pray”.
Apart from the utter disgrace of this behaviour, we need to analyse this rare look into a pedophile priest’s confession. In his affidavit McArdle stated this about his crimes: “I was devastated after the assaults, every one of them. So distressed would I become that I would attend confessions weekly.” After each confession, he said, “it was like a magic wand had been waved over me”. The confessional forgiveness gave him a clean slate that allowed him, within the week, to reoffend — a cycle that lasted for several decades. The problem was not just the offender but the priests supporting a system that was profoundly flawed and catered to and protected priests who should have been reported to the police, not forgiven and just sent home.
In McArdle’s 1500 face-to-face confessions the identity of the offender priest is revealed — and we have 30 “good” priests who heard that these sins and crimes were happening week after week, month after month, year after year for many years. What did they do? En masse they forgave him and, as if of one mind, they told him to “go home and pray”. During my 32 years of confession I was never once told to go home and pray. Is this something priests are taught at the seminary to say to fellow priests under such circumstances? How else could they all say the same quite curious thing? Why did not one of those non-offending “good” priests protect the children? When they saw McArdle’s face yet again, why didn’t they say, “Before I can forgive you, you must get help” or “You have to stop this” or “I cannot forgive you”, instead of enabling him to go off and reoffend for decade after decade? Did not one of those ordained and ontologically changed men, those good and godly priests, feel anything for the children who were being endlessly assaulted and tormented?
In 2011, when senator Nick Xenophon released a press statement headlined “Confession of Child Abuse Must be Reported to Police”, one priest defended the confessional seal saying: “The proposed change could scare offenders away from confession, which otherwise could be a first step towards seeking treatment or surrendering to police”. Where is the evidence of such noble intent in the 30 priests? Where is the encouragement for the pedophile priest McArdle from his fellow 30 priests to surrender to the police? It wasn’t there. All 30 said “go home and pray”. And that is all. If McArdle had not been forgiven perhaps his guilt would have compelled him to get help or surrender himself to authorities.
McArdle’s weekly cycle of confession and forgiveness aided and abetted him in his crimes. Mandatory reporting would have stopped him 25 years earlier at his first confession. The subsequent effect would have been generations of children saved from the lifelong affliction of childhood sexual assault. Instead, we have heartbreaking lives of pain and suicide.
McArdle received a six-year jail sentence for his uncountable crimes against innocent children. Perhaps the 30 priests he made his confession to should have volunteered to accompany him to jail. The church and the 30 “good” priests did nothing to help the children. The children had to grow into adults and become brave enough to speak of their trauma. The children speaking out have lessened the carnage when the priests and their hierarchy chose to do nothing but protect each other and church assets. The royal commission is right to call for the removal of the seal of confession for priests in instances of child sexual assault because we know what members of the priesthood have done with the trust bestowed upon them by society. And it has to stop. If the confessional seal prevails over the demand for child protection by civil authorities, what precedent is being set when mandatory reporting of child sex crimes cannot be enforced because of a foreign sovereign state’s (the Vatican) religious law? The government must be brave and follow the royal commission’s informed recommendations. The Catholic Church priesthood says confession is sacrosanct. I say the bodies of children are sacrosanct.
Comment By Brian Mark Hennessy of the Comboni Survivors’ Group
The raw feelings expressed by Chrissie Foster in the above article will be the first sincere thoughts of anyone concerned for the welfare of the children and it would appear to be the obvious solution that mandatory reporting, as recommended by the Australian Royal Commission, is the obvious solution. The Catholic Church has a different view on that matter and states that the priest in the Confessional is an intermediary between the sinner and God and that the priest’s secrecy is, therefore, sacrosanct. There is a possible way forward with this difficulty for the priest is enabled to defer absolution until the sinner has demonstrated his ‘true sorrow’ for his actions by owning up to the civil authorities the nature of his crime. The priest would be able, therefore, to verify that that had been done and grant absolution. The dilemma is that should the sinner not surrender himself to the civil authorities, then more children might be in danger of abuse. What then? I believe that the priest should approach the individual outside of the confessional situation and agree to discuss the issue further, and having done so outside of the confessional, the priest would then be at liberty to report the individual himself should the sinner not be prepared to do so. A way to protect children has to be found.
After all, surely that is what God would want!