The threat had been hovering for months, it fell on September 8, 2020: the State of Queensland – in northeastern Australia - passed a law requiring priests to break the seal of confession in the event of a revelation of abuse during confession.
Queensland’s law on “Child and Community Services” is clear: when a church minister, on the basis of information that has been communicated to him in the exercise of his duties, forms an opinion, that falls within its framework. And, as a consequence, the criminal responsibility of the minister of worship is engaged, even if this information was communicated during confession, and even if the disclosure of this information is contrary to the faith or religion of the minister.
Under this provision, any information disclosed to a priest during confession which leads him to believe or understand that a minor is the victim of sexual abuse, must be reported to the authorities, regardless of the will of the penitent – whether he is the abuser or the abused.
Thus, any abuse or suspicion of abuse should be reported. Failure to do so constitutes a criminal offense under the new law. Penalties for breach of this provision range from a fine to three years in prison. So the priest is liable to be tried and punished if he refuses to violate the secrecy of the confessional.
The law was passed despite a warning from the bishops, whose advice had been sought. And despite the Vatican’s reaction—requested by the Australian government through the bishops—which recalled the inviolability of the secrecy of confession.
We must be knowledgeable about the doctrine of the Church on this subject. Any priest who is guilty of divulging the secrets of confession is severely punished. If the violation is direct, that is to say clearly manifested by the confessor, it is punished by an excommunication reserved for the Holy See. This penalty does not need to be brought by a judge, it exists as soon as the fault is established.
If the violation is indirect, that is to say that it can be deduced from the words or the conduct of the confessor, it is judged and punished according to the gravity of the fault by a sanction which can go as far as excommunication.
We must remember that the law of God is superior to human law. Confession is not addressed directly to the priest, but to God Himself, of whom the priest is only the minister. It is Christ who absolves the penitent through the hands of His priest. The secret of confession therefore protects this intimate contact of a penitent with God, whose knowledge no one can claim.
There is no shortage of examples of martyrs of confession, of priests having lost their lives rather than revealing the sins of their penitents. One of the most famous is St. John Nepomuk (1340-1393), who was martyred by King Wenceslas IV of Bohemia because he refused to betray the confessions of the queen, Sophie of Bavaria. He was tortured and thrown into the Vltava (Moldau) river.
Today Queensland judges are about to try and throw in jail priests who can emulate this example. They will have the same reward as the illustrious martyr.