It binds priests under the penalty of excommunication from the Church never to reveal anything they hear in the Confessional unless given explicit permission by the person concerned.
The suggestion has been made that requiring priests to report any admissions of child abuse made in the Confessional to the police will protect children from further abuse.
The desire to do everything possible to protect children from this horrific cruelty is compelling. Mandatory reporting of child abuse is an important part of this vital task in our society.
Read Bishop Peter Elliott's Letter to the Editor Herald Sun, Friday 20 July 2012
Therefore the important question is this: would including priests in such a regime of mandatory reporting, specifically in relation to what is disclosed to them in the Confessional, achieve this outcome? The answer is almost certainly "no" for a very important reason.
In Catholic theology and practice, Confession involves the full admission of serious sin to a priest who, through the sacrament of Confession, becomes a channel of God's forgiveness and healing.
Providing a person is really open to it, divine forgiveness and healing can have a transformative effect in a person's life. It can lead to newfound courage and a determination to confront the reality of sin in the person's life, accept the consequences of his or her action, and do whatever must be done to repair the damage.
Confession in the Catholic understanding therefore involves sincere repentance on the part of the person confessing his or her sins, and a firm determination to turn away from the sinful behavior.
Contrary to the caricature often portrayed by some, confession of sin and absolution from God through the ministry of the priest does not trivialize sin or become a licence to do what ever one likes because one can always rush back to confession to "wipe the slate clean".
Unless there is a full admission of sin, genuine sorrow and a firm determination to change, there is no forgiveness.
That this is a requirement for genuine and effective confession would be made clear to the person by the priest.
The confidentiality of the Confessional, and often the anonymity of the encounter, certainly make it easier (though never easy) for someone conscious of serious sin in his or her life to approach the sacrament seeking God's forgiveness. If this anonymity, and even more this confidentiality, could not be assured, it is most unlikely that anyone would confess to the terrible sin and crime of sexual abuse of children.
An important dimension of Confession is that it gives an offender a chance, perhaps the only chance they are open to, to really confront the terrible nature of their behaviour.
Such a personal confrontation could be the beginning of a radical change in their lives. With the counseling and firm direction of the priest they may reach a point where they voluntarily seek treatment and surrender to the police.
The imposition of mandatory reporting, and the subsequent destruction of the confidentiality of the confessional, remove any hope that this outcome might eventuate. The abuser will simply not take the risk of revealing his or her crimes to another.
In arguing for the sanctity of the Confessional, the Church does not walk away from the obligation of all its members, and most especially its priests, to do everything possible to ensure that this terrible scourge is eliminated from its midst.
Violating the confidentiality of the Confessional is not the answer. Rather the answer lies in an ongoing focus on prevention strategies, encouraging victims and offenders to report crimes to the police and on transparent and independent but less formal processes such as the Melbourne Response led by eminent QC Peter O'Callaghan.
Senator Xenophon, who has called for mandatory reporting of child abuse which comes to light in the Confessional, is right to insist that the protection of children should come before any other consideration. In this matter children's best interests are served by maintaining the absolute confidentiality of the Confessional, rather than by dismantling it.