Thursday, January 22, 2015

The SCOTUS Confession decision: What you haven't been told

There's been lots of commotion about the decision by SCOTUS to not hear the case involving the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge and one of its priests. The diocese claimed that the court permitting testimony by a woman who claims to have been molested at age 14 would violate the "Seal of the confessional" and damage the free practice of religion.

In an interview the woman, now 20,  shares that 6 years ago she spoke to the priest while in the confessional about how she was being abused by one of the parishioners and asked his advice. She claims he told her to tell no one and to "take care of it" whatever that means.

Catholics have been talking about immeasurable damage allowing this testimony will cause to the church, to religious liberty and how no one will confess because the Seal has been broken and they will all go to Hell. They talk about the poor priest and how he will be forced to choose between God and going to jail.

Here are two things you might have heard, and one I'm quite certain you haven't.

1. The Diocese wants to shut the woman up. The Code of Canon Law (Canons 983 & 984) claims the Seal of Confession is to protect the penitent. It specifically prohibits the confessor (priest) from using the information heard. The diocese claims that the seal also silences the penitent and prohibits them from speaking, so the court must not hear the testimony about the Confession. The Code doesn't mention this at all, and even if it did, would put the diocese in the esteemed company of Jim Jones and the church of Scientology who also took extreme steps to limit what their members could share with outsiders,

2. The woman wasn't a sinner with regard to the abuse. This 14 year old was abused and raped by an older man. There was no consent possible, so even if you believe in sin, you have to acknowledge that there could be no sin on her part because there was no willingness. (Those of you who want to split theological hairs and try to find ways that one could sin by being sexually abused are welcome to share those ideas somewhere else, goodbye)

Since she wasn't acting in the role of a penitent with regard to this particular item of communication, the "Seal" doesn't apply here, and there should be no limit on her testimony or his response. The case sought to determine whether his response to the request for help was negligent and it's perfectly reasonable for the court to do so.

3. The priest could have avoided the entire thing. No Catholic commentator has shared what would have been the simple solution to the whole dilemma. Let's remember that this abuse occurred after Cardinal Law and Boston; after the abuse investigations in Orange County and after the US Council of Catholic Bishops implemented their training program and "zero tolerance" policy for sexual abuse in the church.

So in Baton Rouge, when a 14 year old girl shared with the priest in the confessional that one of the church members was abusing her sexually and she needed help, what could the priest, aware of the importance of "zero tolerance" for abuse have done?

He only needed to say, "This is awful, and I will do anything I can to help you. You did nothing wrong, and have nothing to confess about this abuse. As you know, I'm not supposed to share anything that might be considered part of a confession, so to make certain that no one will question, my getting help for you, let's officially finish the confession, and you tell me this one more time. Then I will contact the authorities and make this right for you."

That's all he had to do.

Many Catholic commentators have wrung their hands and moaned that if she had only told him outside of Confession, he could have helped her, placing the blame and onus on a scared and abused 14 year old. Instead let's put the responsibility where it belongs, with the college-educated older man who understood Canon Law and who supposedly was commanded by the US Bishops to have "zero tolerance" for abuse. He was the mature person with power in the situation and the responsibility lay with him.

The next Catholic who brings this up to you as an example of how their "religious freedom" is in danger, ask them why they support a negligent individual who failed to demonstrate "zero tolerance" and a Diocese that cared more about silencing a victim and limiting their liability rather than fixing a gaping hole in their "zero tolerance" policy and negligence by their staff.

Remind them that with freedom come the requirement to exercise it responsibly. There's a quote they claim to attach a lot of importance to about not harming "the least of these." Perhaps they could write to the Diocese and suggest they spend some time on the other side of the Confessional trying out the phrase "mea culpa" rather than demanding their rights.

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