Sexual abuse claims against the Catholic Church have been an ongoing back-and-forth for the past 7 decades. Recently, the spotlight has been on the French Catholic Church after a report detailing sexual abuse by clergy members between 1950 and 2020 was released. In it, it was exposed that 216,000 infants have been sexually abused by priests and 114,000 other children were sexually abused by members of Church staff, totalling the number of victims to an unfortunate 330,000 minors. The release of this report has ignited heated discourse between the Church and the State in France, as both the government and the people have lately grown more critical towards the Church and their handling of these very heinous allegations.
In the midst of this discourse, the existence of the sacrament of confession has also come under serious scrutiny as it is being viewed as an enabler of the ongoing sexual abuse towards minors. Conceived as the way that man can reconcile with God for his shortcomings through the acknowledgement of sin and repentance, it is regarded as highly confidential: only between a man, a priest and God. Church law even states that any priest who breaches the confidentiality of a confession is to face excommunication from the Church under non-negotiable terms. This brings up the question: is this highly confidential nature allowing the Church to protect clergymen who confess to sexually abusing minors from the law?
Many outside of the Church are of the opinion that priests should actively report any individuals who confess to committing such appalling acts, regardless of how confidential this dogma is intended to be. However, this has brought up a very contentious discourse between the Church and the State, complicating their already strained relationship even more. The Vatican rebuked this proposal and said that they still choose to remain fully committed to preserving the secrecy of confession, stating that they believe Church law to be “superior to the laws of the French Republic” (a comment that received great disapproval from the French government and was eventually taken back by the presiding Archbishop in France).
The French government continues to urge the Church to report such confessions, however it has never legally bound the Church to do so, leaving the Archbishopric as well as the Holy See to exercise its full discretion over how to handle the matter. Some argue that there is still hope for the Catholic Church to review these policies, like Reverend Thomas Poussier, who acknowledged the reason people are growing weary towards confession is that it “may appear to be a big laundering machine for the souls of predators.”
The debate between the Church and an increasingly secular State brings us to wonder whether the relationship between the laws of faith and State will ever settle or if precedence will be given to either one. This interrogant is especially so in France, a country where the separation of the Church and the State has famously not been very amicable. Finally, we can also ask ourselves where we ought to draw the necessary lines between morality, the practises of religion and the law.