Tag Archives: politics

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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Never stop changing

Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life

In light of recent events, it seems to me that human nature has braved yet another test.

Throughout history, the natural order of things has been change. We know this because our ancestors had to adapt to survive. Adapt or die. Times pass. Seasons come and go. No single place can look the same given ten or twenty years. Growth and development is the unlocked promise of our DNA. People age and die, and events fall out of relevance and into history books.

So my post-election question is this: are we truly happy, or have we simply grown complacent?

We spend so much time, effort and money trying to preserve the status quo. Obama spent over 2 billion USD worth of campaign funds just to fight for a tomorrow that will be the same as today when we woke up. Senate unchanged, House of Reps unchanged. Business as usual. We listen to centrist skeptics tell us voting for Obama was right because he is the lesser of two evils, and if we hear it enough we might even believe them. But is being the lesser of two evils really the best we can do? If we admit that there are things we don’t like, such as the drone wars, or extrajudicial killings, or unilateral war, actions that we don’t feel represent our values as a nation, then why can’t we be faithful to those beliefs?

Why do we wait for other people to tell us the change we need? When did we become so powerless as to need someone else to point it out when something is wrong? When did we become backseat drivers, agreeing (or not) to change but never, ever conceding on the terms of change?

Are there really no alternatives? Are we really so defunct, as a democracy, to produce anyone, anything, that really shoots an arrow to the heart? When was the last time you watched a politician speak and felt a conviction that made your heart flush with white heat, thinking ‘Yes. This. This is what I believe in’? Or have we become so educated that we’re all on the same page, rendering reasonable discussion unnecessary?

In the new order of things, people are resistant to change. It’s as if we’re bickering over roses or magnolias when none of us are willing to admit that the garden isn’t to our taste anymore. In fact, we fucking hate gardening. And meanwhile the weeds are still eating their way through.

Time moves forward but we remain stuck in inertia, jerking like marionette puppets to the relentless progression of minutes, hours, weeks, years. But there is a very sharp, very striking difference between waiting with patience on the side of the road to change, and wilfully avoiding making those first steps.

And Government at home?

Well, this is funny because apparently the problem is too much change. Apparently we can’t handle a shotgun election and we’re also too in love with the past to accept a female prime minister who doesn’t care about her coat choices, and did we mention that she’s in a de facto relationship?

Julia Gillard’s biggest crime is breaking her promise on the carbon tax, if not replacing Kevin Rudd himself in the first place. Let’s think about this for a second. What does the promise of a politician even mean? No – what does anyone’s promise mean? That we won’t ever think differently – even though we will? Come now. We all know that forever means forever only in that moment. Forever means forever only so long as your beliefs don’t change. Forever means forever until you change your mind, for better or worse. The law of nature dictates it. Now, do I want my prime minister to believe the same things today that she believed three years ago, no matter what has transpired in between? No matter if those beliefs are now proven to have been quick-footed, naive, reckless, wrong?

Yes, domestic politics has major commitment issues, but at least it’s willing to change its mind. Admit that it made bad choices, take risks on better ideas as they come.

But there it is again, the half-scared, half-righteous plea: today is not the day for change. Well, neither is tomorrow by the looks of it. Somehow we feel too betrayed (by what?) to be hopeful. We shouldn’t. I believe that people should be naturally optimistic. We are so tiny and fleeting in the history of the universe, and so unable to understand the vastness of our existence that it is hopeless to know what to feel about the future, let alone feeling bad about it.

And if in fact the new decisions of governments are even worse (it happens), then we should be quick and firm to call them out.

I guess being scared does make sense. The human condition is incredibly fragile. It’s hard to look forward to change when some politicians tell us it’ll hurt, even as others tell us we have to bear it for the sake of the future. Who are we supposed to trust? How do we even know what the future looks like?

But we have to remember this. The future may not belong to us, or even to our children, but we are its custodians. I believe we can do the right thing, even if it will not benefit us directly.

Picasso’s art didn’t save him from dying without ever knowing his fame. Beethoven did not compose the greatest symphonies on earth for the pleasure of his own deaf ears.

Do not wait for time. It will always be there: behind you, in front of you, plunging right ahead whether you wait or not.

Attend those rallies. Sign those petitions. Cut that hair, quit that job, drop/date that person, finish that degree, write that book, run that race, create that future.

Tomorrow’s a new day.

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