Tag Archives: government

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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China’s Wife Drought

You may be familiar with the economics of China’s artificially low currency, but how does its marriage economy fare? Did you know that the nightmare of being forever alone is closer to reality in the Middle Kingdom? Starting with an overview of Chinese market economics, I’m going to attempt to explain the current wife drought that is gripping the Asian giant.

Since adapting Deng Xiaoping’s policies of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ in 1978, essentially a hybrid of free market capitalism and socialism from the Maoist years, critics of China’s integration with the global economy still have beef with the way the country goes about its international trade.

China has less of a mixed market economy than a centrally planned one with a huge public sector of state-owned enterprises claiming 40-50 percent of national GDP. And whilst state subsidies for steel and auto parts manufacturing industries guarantee lower prices of Chinese goods around the world, instilling in us cheap expectations of anything tagged Made in China; they provide an unfair advantage against relatively expensive foreign goods and services.

Even more financially uproarious is China’s heavily undervalued currency (renmenbi). Pegged to the U.S. dollar until 2005, these days the yuan (single unit renmenbi) has been allowed to float in a narrow margin of 0.3 percent above or below the previous day’s market closing price. By keeping the value of the yuan on a tight leash, China ensures that its goods and services remain internationally competitive. Exactly how undervalued the yuan is contested from all accounts, but recent studies point to a figure of about 37.5 percent below its fundamental exchange rate. The Big Mac Index, which compares the relative prices of MacDonalds Big Macs in multiple countries, indicates an even higher gap, 44 percent.

It’s common to see Congressmen and investment bankers (it’s hard to differentiate the interests of the two) griping about the undervalued renmenbi, with Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney declaring China a ‘currency manipulator’ who doesn’t play by the rules. To modern capitalists raised with the promise of free trade to wherever the invisible hand points, it’s truly a clash of civilizations.

But China’s exchange rate isn’t the only thing that’s fixed.

Citing one of the national interest objectives – and arguably the most important, stability (he xie), the Chinese Communist Party introduced the infamous One-child policy to contain soaring population growth within the same year of opening up to world trade. Official statements justify the policy by its alleviation of national economic, social and environmental problems, and authorities estimate the policy to have prevented more than 650 million births from 1980 to now.

Looking beyond the sheer monotony and near-certain pampering of single children, disturbing trends appear. Coupled with traditional Confucian values of patriarchal male dominance, including but not confined to reasons of: sons carrying on the family lineage by name, and daughters marrying out into their husbands’ families and caring for in-laws rather than their own parents, it’s no small wonder that the one-child policy has forced couples to illegally abort, abandon or leave to die their baby girls. Each year, the recorded sex ratio at birth is roughly 120 males to 100 females. Australia’s sex ratio at birth is 106 males to 100 females. The end result is that there are more than 35 million ‘missing women’ in China.

Not only is the employment system skewed to favour men over women (women contribute only 16 percent share of household income in low-income households), the entire gender demographic has damned women from day one. To add insult to injury, couples in rural provinces are permitted to have more than one child if the firstborn is a girl.

What has arisen out of this gender crisis next is alarming, and affecting millions of young Chinese men already. Bachelors of marrying-age enter the marriage market – and many exit years later, deflated. Some are doomed to spend their lives in singledom. Projections suggest that by 2030, more than 25 percent of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married – ironically a natural prevention of the uncontrollable population growth the government so fears.

The chase is on.

In the most basic of economic terms, demand for brides is in desperate excess of supply. Like the Chinese exchange rate, females are constitutionally and culturally undervalued (and males are outrageously overvalued). We can take the fundamental ‘exchange rate’ as 105-107 males per 100 females, the natural sex ratio at birth in most other countries.

At the officially set sex ratio, the quantity of males supplied outstrips the quantity demanded by the female population, creating a male surplus (unfortunately polygamy was outlawed in China by the Kuomintang in the early 1900s, although a woman taking on several male concubines would be interesting.)

The solution?

In a flexible market, increased competition for brides means that men must increase the prices of their dowries and salaries until perfect equilibrium is reached in which distribution of brides goes only to the best ‘buyers’ in the market (feminists come at me). But for now, recent policy statements and funding to offset effects of the one-child policy notwithstanding, it’s up to China to use its capital reserves to buy up excess supply of men, by catering to their pent-up frustrations with higher salary jobs and all the material comforts that (state) capitalism can offer.

May the best man win!

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