Tag Archives: australia

The sanctity of the criminal confession

The Gillard Government’s move to launch a Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse has been met with overwhelming congratulation. However in the weeks since, the Commission has been clouded by the much battled and loaded question of whether Catholic priests have the right to confessional silence (Julia Gillard has called this a ‘sin of omission’).

While the Royal Commission is not a criminal investigation, in the wider scheme of things it seeks to better enable institutions to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse. Of the Commission’s listed objectives, ‘identifying impediments within institutions and organisations to the proper notification, investigation and prevention of child sexual abuse’ has indeed struck a chord with the Catholic Church and its followers. Under this recommendation, confessions of child sexual abuse by the penitent would have to be reported to the police. At present, a priest’s ‘confessional seal’ is unbreakable: the inviolable confidentiality exercised by the priest in the name of God goes hand in hand with the religious absolution granted to ‘sinners’ in the confessional box. This right is guaranteed by freedom of religious belief as promised in the Australian Constitution.

At the heart of this discussion lies a choice that must be made between the conflicting human rights in this situation: the right of the victim to better protection from sexual abuse, and the right of the priest to his fundamental religious beliefs.

Voices in politics and media have been quick to turn the Catholic Church on its head, with Independent Nick Xenophon slamming the confessional seal as ‘a mediaeval law that needs to change in the 21st century’. It’s easy to see how easy it is to condemn a religious practice in a secular, politicised environment, especially when there are factors such as horrific child crime involved – but that’s because religion is one of the biggest dividers known to man. It is almost impossible for the secular to understand the motivations and fears of those who are deeply faithful: breaking the confessional seal means excommunication for priests, that is, complete exclusion and exile from the Catholic Church – the priest’s institutional connection to God. And even if you don’t believe in that kind of stuff, it can be dangerous to forcibly take it away from other people, with unintended consequences.

Sarah Joseph from the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University reminds us that these religious ‘rights cannot be simply dismissed as irrelevant, out-of-date, or irrational. Notions of freedom of religious would have little meaning if they only apply to manifestations of rational beliefs shared by the majority: the very nature of religion is to buy into leaps of faith beyond the objectively provable. The human right to do that is an important one.’

While debating this issue, it’s important to remember that everyone in society wants the prevention of child sexual abuse (except for the perpetrators). It is useless to think that members of the Catholic Church belittle child abuse because they resist these laws. Rather, I imagine that it is because that they believe that for criminals who confess, the availability of religious absolution given by God matters more than penal justice given by men.

But does this amount to one institution selectively isolating itself from common law? Absolutely. The law is written by and for everyone: to challenge its universality is to challenge the legitimacy of the entire judicial system and the original social contract that binds us to it. Prison exists as a deterrent for crime and therefore helps prevent future crimes from being committed. So theoretically, priests should be subjected to the same statutory duties as say, teachers or therapists who hear of crime (but not lawyers or journalists yet, it seems).

But we aren’t working with theories here. We’re here to work with what works. And rational voices emerging out of the cloaked stigma of the confessional box are suggesting that criminal confessions are better than nothing at all. To take a crime to a priest requires a modicum of remorse and conscience. If a priest is able to take advantage of this to persuade the paedophile to take up treatment or turn himself in, then the outcome is better than no criminal confession at all, is it not?

If, on the other hand priests are forced to report all confessions of this nature, and it is unclear whether or not the identity of the paedophile or victim would be known, it will dissuade other paedophiles from confessing in the future, beyond certainty.

Says NSW auxiliary bishop Geoffrey Robinson of a treatment centre run by the Catholic Church, ‘If you ask me whether the number of new offences will be significantly less if 100 offenders receive serious [religious] treatment, then yes, I can give that guarantee.

This is a question that society must face. Do we wish to adopt only a single solution of punishment for all cases of sexual abuse? Or do we wish treatment as another option? If we can have both, so much the better, but on many occasions that is not possible. Sometimes we have to choose between punishment and prevention.

In gaining information on one single client that may or may not have been useful in securing a conviction, the price to be paid would have been that no offenders in the future would receive any treatment.’

Whether or not to grant absolution is up to the religious discretion of the priest, but Bishop Robinson stresses that absolution is conditional on a ‘firm purpose of amendment’ given by the penitent, that is, the intention not to offend again. But how can a priest have the confidence to as such? If every priest can ask for ‘serious and concrete practical steps to ensure that [he] would not offend again’, such as seeking out treatment, this could go a long way in preventing further abuse – albeit in an unconventional way that circumvents the legal system in place. But as I said, it’s better than nothing.

Satellite issues that have been raised such as the albatross of Catholic paedophile priests (5-7 percent of priests in Victoria are estimated to have sexually abused children) are irrelevant in discussing the sanctity of the confessional. Paedophile priests simply not go to confession. Bishop Robinson puts this down to the ‘distorted thinking’ of these priests, in that ‘they have convinced themselves that what they are doing is not wrong.’ Another disincentive to confess is the fear of a harsh absolution if identified as a priest.

All things considered, there simply seems to be disagreement on how prevention of child sexual abuse ought to be achieved. This is a moral challenge that we must talk about and address openly and honestly.

Forcing priests to break the confessional seal for the sake of extracting tenuously useful investigative information will dismantle the religious faith of the Catholic institution, and avoids the problem of preventing child sexual abuse in the first place. This is us scrambling for, but failing to focus on the right enemy.

Further reading:

The Age Full Coverage

PM Media Release

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India, sentimentality, bandwagons and other conflicts

2002, Summer.

How ironic that at a time of great spiritual bankruptcy personally, I found myself in the bowels of India, dumped unceremoniously at the fringe of the great bustling city of New Delhi…

It goes some way to explain that at the time, I was in love with my best friend and would’ve crawled across broken glass to be near him. He didn’t know. For a while now he’d told me about his plans to move to a third world country for a few months. While the exact nature of this trip – a holiday? A tour? An experiment in philanthropy and self-discovery? – was never decided upon, I knew why he wanted to go. It would provoke everything he loved about being human: adventure, compassion and spontaneity. And he asked me to come with him.

Three weeks walking or cycling alternately in the crying, dying slums of outer West Bengal and it was clear that I was not suited for this. The locals were interested but only tangentially. They had other things to do than gawk at the sunburned white foreigner, like feed hungry mouths and tend to anorexic, weeping cows. I did not feel like I was helping anyone by being there. I wanted to go home.

In line for the only bus in the village, a child approached me. I resent labelling him as a child, because this is not what children should look like. I thought, born in the great blue land of the West, a child should be healthy and happy, not with huge eyes white and rolling, ribs you can count and scraps of ragged clothing dragging in the dust.

Faced with such a sight, I did what any self-respecting, desperate Westerner would do: I reached into my backpack, dug open my wallet and gave him all the notes I could spare save my bus fare: rolled up in wads, crumpled, flat, I stuffed all those little pieces of paper into the child’s faltering hands. I wanted the money to do what I could not.

Then I took my deluded sentimentality of making a difference, and of getting him to ever love me, and I went home.

Does this story surprise you?

It shouldn’t. This is the emotional trajectory of sentimentality, the special place that burns with intense empathy when you read about North Korean gulags, or watch Kony 2012, or Hurricane Sandy, or injustices of every other variety, stripe and colour.

The writer Oscar Wilde once said, ‘the emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence, and it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.

While I am reading news of these terrible, terrible happenings, thinking to myself: ‘I must do something to help. I must write about it and tell as many people as I can,’ Oscar says inside my head: ‘You’re doing it again. You’re being sentimental.’

‘That might be true,’ I say back, inside my head. ‘But how can I not?’ To me, it’s not sentimentality; it’s just part of being human.

‘You’re right,’ Oscar concedes, ‘Wanting to help isn’t a sign of blind sentimentality. But have you thought about what the best way to help is? And how do you know that is the best way?’

And here another novelist, Teju Cole enters the imaginary conversation inside my head.

‘There is much more to doing good work than “making a difference”, Christine.’

‘So please Teju, tell me what more there is.’

‘There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.’

I think this over. Have we been ignoring this, every time we call for IMMEDIATE ACTION, or Down with The Man, or share the same, uncritical video campaigns on Facebook while wanting to ‘make a difference’?

Teju leaves me with a sobering one-liner: ‘All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need’, before vaporising into thin air.

In his absence, the fallacy of hasty action has just begun. When we latch onto slogan-friendly, assertive messages, ideally able to be plastered on bumper stickers and badges and to be crisply delivered in a single Tweet: Occupy Wall Street, GetKony, Ditch the Witch (Julia Gillard), etc, we are forcing massive, complicated problems through the bottleneck of communicative ease. By fixating on a single oversimplified interpretation of the cause (or more often than not, just the solution to a perceived cause), we ignore the wider constellation of factors underlying the root of the problem.

Then we take this ‘solution’ and multiply it, as social media has gratuitously allowed us to do. In this reality, even the most uninformed, pop cultured young person can do something. Everyone has something to offer, some way of helping, because everyone matters. This reality is the most important, if unspoken, commodity that our social-media-information-technology culture has sold us. It is also this culture’s greatest achievement – that of true democracy. Social media is a democratizing force that diffuses the power over the flow of information from media organisations and the state to individuals and groups.

Said of Jason Russell, founder of Kony 2012:

He gave people the excuse to act via two clever techniques; scarcity; act now or miss out, social norming, this is the new world order, act now everyone else is. He’s also ensured other well known popular celebrities are involved, modeling the appropriate behaviour so others follow.

But sheep mentality is not true democracy. Leaping from one bandwagon to the next without understanding the structural background of the causes we support is not enough – that is a dissemination of ignorance, and it can be harmful.

Perhaps the fear is that we are all hopelessly helpless. Unable to change the rules in Parliament, unable to march in there ourselves and rid whatever situation of whatever villain – we can only sit behind our computer screens, fuming and agitated with sentimental zeal.

Perhaps enthusiasm is but another way of expressing desperation. And a crowd of enthusiasts – well, that speaks of a culture raised on finite attention spans, while all the time social media ‘thunders indiscriminately, fecklessly from one glitzy cause to the next.’

For most of us, our only tools are our youthful idealism, the internet, and our sheer numbers – all of which, when used well can do good. Forget villains and guns. Changing the system first requires understanding of the system.

I give you the example of terrorism. We have spent eleven years and counting blatantly fighting the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its progress can be boiled down to tracking down and defeating the most identifiable villain – Osama bin Laden. But what of the pockets of terrorism created by the invasion of the Coalition? What of the terrorism of poverty, what of the fresh grievances made against America, what of the havoc wrought upon civilians by turning the country upside down in the search for one man?

Illegal immigrants, too. The only conceivable conditions under which we can reject boat people, belittling their plight is if we are totally ignorant of the circumstances from which they flee. And equal ignorance of our role, as the U.S.’s staunch ally in the Coalition of the Willing, in creating those circumstances. There is no war fought on earth that does not have its consequences. In rallying behind ‘STOP THE BOATS’, what version of reality do we commit ourselves to? Isolationist policies and tight border security may be a popular image of Australia, but it’s only one small slice of the whole Australia.

‘Doing something’ is different from ‘doing the right thing’. To me, doing the right thing often means just changing your attitudes and understanding of the world around you. Social media is a gift of the 21st century. But you have to be careful when raising awareness via social media. These can’t just be isolated facts or arguments without context. Anyone can read about severely exploited workers in Vietnamese Nike sweatshops and feel bad, but it’s more important to understand the structures of oppression created by the capitalist world order, one in which developed Western states had a head start that changed everything. It’s easy to condemn Western corporations for their greed and their corrupting profit motive, but first you have to understand the structures of inequality as a colonial legacy. You can watch Leo di Cap’s Blood Diamond and feel moved by its very real humanitarian crises to ‘do something’, but it might also help to remember the ‘divide and rule’ partition of Africa by the 19th century European leaders that split ethnic groups along arbitrary geographic lines, creating the blueprint for conflict and poverty that we now have to pay for in foreign aid. These wars can’t be reversed by a well-put together online campaign that wants to storm in and remove just one product of its history. Treat the cause, not the symptom.

The truth is, once you know about something it’s difficult not to care. You can’t ever go back to a state of not-knowing. But bandwagons are the exact opposite of this: they toy with people’s sentiments, and are quickly replaced by next seasons’ humanitarian fad. Without delving deep into the root of these problems I fear we will never care about much, for long. Doubtlessly, sentimentality is part of what it means to be human, but so is rationality. We were born with rational minds for a reason. We must use them – or we will forever be ruled by the irrational.

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Australia’s District 9

Today I was doing some good old procrastination while studying for exams, so I decided to watch the movie District 9 from 2009. One of the many movies I remember wanting to go watch after seeing the trailer, only to forget about it completely or have my wallet say No.

Aliens, blood and a tearjerking story. What more could you possibly ask for in a movie? Of course, District 9 isn’t all about that. Its themes of humanity, xenophobia and social segregation easily call forth a number of humanitarian tragedies in history – colonisation, Auschwitz and the South-African apartheid leap out. A direct interpretation of the aliens, or derogatory term ‘prawns’, is made: “Substitute ‘black,’ ‘Asian,’ ‘Mexican,’ ‘illegal,’ ‘Jew,’ or any number of different labels for the word ‘prawn’ in this film and you will hear the hidden truth behind the dialogue”.

And in light of the Labor government’s new bill to excise the Australian mainland from the migration zone on Wednesday, I decided to take a step further and draw some parallels between District 9 and Australian immigration detention.


District 9: The aliens aren’t just foreigners, they’re extraterrestrials from another planet. They come from another place offering no plausible reason for their arrival, subsequently taking up space in Johannesburg, and are a massive source of violence and crime among the existing community. As aliens, their physical appearances disgust us and make them hard to identify. As the command module to fly their mothership back to their home planet has been lost, it is impossible for them to leave.

Detention: In the real world, the term ‘alien’ has long been used by immigration departments to mean ‘a person who is not a citizen of the country’. That includes all recent immigrants, but especially refugees/ asylum seekers/boat people. The particular ‘aliens’ we are concerned with as a country right now are the sneaky immigrants who arrive without a visa: mostly of Middle Eastern and Southern Asian descent. We have to keep them in detention while we process them because they might be terrorists. Even the little kids. And even if they really did come to Australia out of fear for their lives, they’ll steal our jobs. Furthermore, if refugees are given adverse security assessments by ASIO they can be detained indefinitely, and such a security assessment also prevents other countries from taking them in.

The Government

District 9: The South-African government must respond to the people’s popular protests to remove the aliens from the city, and contracts Multinational United (MNU), a private military company, to carry out this process.

Detention: As of 2009, the Australian Immigration Department contracted Serco Australia Pty Ltd as the service-provider to people in immigration detention centres throughout Australia. Serco is a private government services company that also manages prisons in the UK and the only privately-run prison in Western Australia. Its Immigration Services page reassures you that it runs its immigration business in accordance with utmost professional and corporate standards.


District 9: The razor-wire fencing around the enclosed areas reinforce an image of criminality, that they should be locked up for our collective safety. The alien district, District 9, turns into slums where aliens forage for food amongst rubbish dumps, and the shacks are underdeveloped, dirty and falling apart. Eventually the government intervenes to relocate the aliens to District 10, where they can live in new, white tents far away from the city and its people. District 10 is likened to a concentration camp.

Detention: The razor-wire fencing around the enclosed areas reinforce an image of criminality, that they should be locked up for our collective safety. As of 2011, there were 5733 people in immigration detention in Australia, 975 of whom were children and 97 of whom had been in detention for two years or longer. The average accommodation capacity of Australian detention facilities is in the 200-400 person range, with some immigration detention centres able to accommodate up to 1200 persons. Their forced detainment in places far removed from metropolitan society effectively fences them off from us – out of sight, out of mind.


District 9: The aliens speak in a garbled, techno-robotic voice that is largely unintelligible to the humans in South Africa. So we mostly don’t hear from the alien population, save some very spare language.

Detention: Not to mention that most refugees come to Australia speaking only their native languages, many don’t have a voice that can speak clearly and directly to the outside world from inside detention centres, like lawyers or social workers. There have been instances of asylum seekers sewing their lips together in protest over delays in processing their visa applications. 60 people did this in 2002, and last year three boys at the Victorian Broadmeadows Detention Centre did this as well. These acts of self-mutilation speak powerfully of desperation, emotional and psychological damage, even when detainees physically cannot.

State of Emergency

In a state of emergency, which is exactly what it is, the government suspends all normal behaviour – citizens are alerted to follow official instructions such as evacuation, and government agencies put into plan emergency preparations. Executive, legislative and judicial powers are usually heightened to allow the government to take whatever course of action it has to, based on emergency situations that were obviously unprecedented when drawing up the law. David Cameron effectively declared Britain to be in a state of emergency at the peak of the 2011 London riots, and the aftermath of 9/11 was certainly another, leading to increased state powers to crack down on terrorism. In fact, for 31 years Egypt was held under emergency laws that allowed authorities to detain people without charge and try them in emergency security courts.

District 9: The 20 years of the emergency of alien arrival is surely what political philosopher Carl Schmitt was considering as he first mused over the ‘state of exception’…haha. We see that the state of emergency in Johannesburg allows authorities to get away with some pretty fucked up things, like physical abuse of the aliens or just callous, inhumane references to them, such as when Wikus refers to the sound of alien eggs being destroyed as popping just like popcorn. It’s of course a little funny to speak of humanity in the dealings of very non-human extraterrestrials, but still humanity is a trait we should have, as humans. We should show humanity both to humans and to non-humans, like other animals, and especially to those weaker than us, or at our mercy. Humanity is something that describes us.

Detention: Since the first arrival of boat people in the 1980s, Australia has more or less been in a state of emergency, at least on the border security front. Politicians have been able to bank on this to pull sizeable support for their immigration policies for decades, thanks to ghostly vestiges of the White Australia policy. As a nation we aren’t decided on how to keep them away, but we are decided on keeping them away.

No matter how much they dominate our national conversation, refugees remain a stateless people, non-citizens who are outside of the legitimate political sphere. In physical incarceration, authorities have complete sovereignty over their bodies. There is no concept of personal liberty. In mainstream media, asylum seekers are more of a human rights issue than the real people who make up the issue. They are silent subjects – faceless, hopeless – and we reject the biopolitics of their lives. We reject them.

I only fear that it may not be long before we start thinking of them as aliens, and ‘unbelonging’ turns into subhuman. That’s certainly how the Holocaust and the Apartheid started out. Foucault said:

Modern man is an animal whose politics placed his existence as a living being into question.

We are all living beings. But are all living beings equal? If you say yes, we are all equal, then does that mean we all have equal human rights, including the right as a refugee to the protection of your new country? If your answer is still yes, then please, have a think about what we are doing as a country.

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