During that time when I was too busy to post, I read a post over at InternetMonk (Michael Spencer's old blog) by a Roman Catholic apologist who goes by the name Martha of Ireland. Starting with the recent pedophile priest scandal in Ireland, she posted about what she called The Scandal of Forgiveness. There she argues at length that the secrecy of the confessional, as the church's law (and, she contends, the law of God) ought to trump the law of man. She seeks to answer criticism against what many people see as the church's fairly obvious wrongdoing; she does this by focusing clearly and exclusively on the redemption of the sinner.
I have never heard any Christian dispute the fact that it is the church's job to work for the redemption of the evildoer. The objection comes when protecting the evildoer from the law is given priority over protecting his victims from criminal abuse. The scandal in all this is not the church's forgiveness, it's the church's complicity. The abused are accorded barely a recognition, and their safety is not spared a single thought.
Is the law of God higher than the law of man? Of course; and protecting the innocent is most definitely the law of God. So it is not entirely honest to frame the church's silence as a case of the law of God against the law of man. One of the things that has lost the most credibility for the church is that, this time, it is the secular government upholding the law of God in the case of the abused children, while the church turns a blind eye to that particular law of God, and to the children being abused. How can anyone accept that, much less justify it?
Is keeping the silence of the confessional a law of God, or a law of man? I'll answer for either view a reader might hold. If this secrecy is a man-made law -- then the church is upholding the law of man, while the secular government upholds the law of God. Lots of people hold this view, and are disgusted with the church. But if this secrecy is a law of God, it does not follow that it is the highest law. Protecting the innocent is also the law of God. As Jesus taught, there are times when a lesser law (like resting on the Sabbath) must be broken for a greater law (like rescuing a creature in danger). At times like that, keeping the greater law makes a person innocent, even if he breaks the lesser law. But breaking the greater law for the sake of keeping the lesser law is wrong in the eyes of God.
In Ireland, there is at least talk of an Irish law to insist that priests who hear confessions should report actual crimes to the government authorities. I think Ireland is justified to make such a law; still it is questionable whether the Catholic Church would submit itself to an ordinance of man even for the Lord's sake, to those who are appointed for the punishment of evildoers. That is why I would hope to see a similar law come from the church hierarchy. What other law would the priests respect? In some cases, the church is accustomed to — and theologically prepared to – defy the law of the land. But every once in awhile the law of the land may hold true to the law of God, and they do wrong to go against it at a time like that. The priest could easily insist that, if the person’s repentance is genuine, then their act of penance — or restitution — will be to turn himself over to the authorities and confess also to them. If the priest were quite serious about protecting the people being wronged, or even respecting the laws of the land (especially ones that coincide with the laws of God), I’d think that would be a given.
Martha's article also frames the problem as if the real difficulty people have with the priests is that they might hear a man from their parish who confesses to abusing a child. We spend the length of her article looking at the priest through Martha's eyes as a noble man in a difficult situation because of the privacy of the confessional. But back in the real-world scandal, the problem with the priests has not been so much that they might have heard a terrible confession -- it has been that the priests themselves were the criminals. So, in one sense, the whole article is a diversion from the real issue of the ongoing sexual abuse scandal among the priests. Their superiors could have insisted the criminal priests should turn themselves in. I expect that the priests are under vows of obedience to the church. If the church commanded them to turn themselves in and they did not, I suspect that they could be legitimately defrocked for disobedience. Is this a desirable outcome? Yes. Let's not outsmart ourselves.
The article I'm responding to is written in defense of a policy of silence that was questionable even with an offender from the members of the parish; but silence becomes even more questionable when we remember that the offenders in the original scandal are, themselves, priests. When it comes to the question of priests who themselves are pedophiles, the situation is worse: then we have an institution with an official policy of silence to protect known criminals within its own membership and leadership. That is generally regarded as corrupt, and no number of fine words will change peoples' recognition of something wrong with that picture.
As a side note, I admit to being puzzled by one of Martha's arguments: that once a sin is forgiven in the eyes of God, that's the end of the story on whether the sin can be mentioned again. A group like Rome teaches, on the one hand, that the confessional and forgiveness are not the end of the story on a sin -- that purgatory still follows. It seems that if forgiveness was not a full answer in God's eyes, and God gives the sinner a second round of medicine -- purification -- then the church has already recognized in principle that forgiveness is one thing and the stain of sin is another, that the sin may need some follow-up work even if it is forgiven. By the same token it is perfectly legitimate for the government and its laws to do their job even on a forgiven sin -- for the safety of the people.
Why won't the pedophile priests scandal go away -- yet? It will not go away until Rome recognizes that protecting victims from harm is also the law of God -- and a higher law than protecting the offender. Rome must also recognize that it is one question whether a sinner is forgiven in God's eyes, and a different question whether he is safe to his neighbors. When the day comes that we hear the Roman Catholic apologists arguing at length about defending the weak and upholding their cause before God, then the day may be closer when we can leave the scandal behind. But so long as the apologists make arguments about how the status quo is fine and the policy of silence is good, why should anything change?