Redemption is eternal but justice is temporal. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Joanna Moorhead’s article in the Guardian on the 16th of August suggests otherwise. In it, she considers the recent decision by the royal commission on Australia to recommend that priests who fail to report abuse disclosed to them in the confessional should be criminalised, and decides that this is wrong. “Even for child abusers, confessional confidentiality is sacrosanct” her headline reads. , Even as she acknowledges that child abuse is among the vilest of crimes she also seems to think that child abusers also have the right to privacy. Really?
It is exactly this sort of retreat into religious privilege that nullifies the argument. It is also the reason why so many people turn away from the very church she is trying to defend, because it promotes the stability of the church over the dignity of the human. For a Catholic to escape justice by confessing their crimes to a priest, whom we are told, “Deputises for God” and thus is able to pardon sin is reprehensible. The fundamental Christian belief that we can all be forgiven is not undone by facing earthly justice. If it was Alpha for prisons would not be so popular. Perhaps it is my ignorance of Catholic theology that leads me astray here, (and if it is, then I will be writing to the Pope asking him to reconsider this loop hole that allows people to get away with myriad crimes) but generally, Christian soteriological theology is predicated on the concepts of justice and mercy. The whole point of the cross is so that one can experience God’s mercy in the next life, not to escape justice in this one. The mendacity of an approach that substitutes one for the other is wrong, and one of the foundational reasons why child abuse in the church itself has been so endemic for so long.
“Too deny” [that a child abuser can be forgiven] “is to deny our humanity” Moorhead continues. Again the tendentious use of concepts here is breathtaking. No one denied this. However, this is not what the decision by the royal commission is about. That decision places responsibility on priests to assist the authorities in protecting the vulnerable, when they receive information that could do so. Moorhead’s argument is about heaven and hell and represents a conflation of two very different matters. A sin is not the same as a crime. As a caveat, I must address the fact that many things that were considered sins in the past have since been decriminalised as secularism separated the church and religious edicts from the criminal justice system.
Sin however, belongs to God and his standards of morality, but the definition and punishment of crimes belong to us here on earth, so that this shared space can be safer for all of us. Of course, there are subject to change as society evolves, but I shudder to think of a progressive society in which child abusers can escape justice or paedophilia is normalised. Thus, while God may have it in his heart to forgive sin, crimes should be punished, and criminals should face justice. In the case of child abusers, they should be known to the local community so that other children can be protected. The premise that we should take it on faith (no pun intended) that “the penitent is truly sorry and genuinely intends not to commit their sin again” is ridiculous. Using this faulty logic as a point of departure, we can extrapolate that in the regular, secular justice system, a serial killer could hypothetically walk into a police station, say “I’m sorry detective, I killed a girl, and buried her body in the woods, but I promise never to do it again”, and be let off. Is this a straw man argument? No, because what is happening in the church has power over people’s lives. The priest stands for God, the purveyor of all justice, and let’s people off, at once police officer and judge, so as long as priests are allowed to do this, and let people go in peace, then in a secular justice system, the detective/ judge would also have the same obligation to use her powers to let people go. Who would live in such a world? The mind boggles.
How could Joanna Moorhead write this article, in 2017, post Jimmy Saville? When we know now that there were people who knew what he was up to, who remained silent for reasons best known only to themselves? It is morally wrong to protect abusers of vulnerable people simply because they belong to one particular community, be it a religious one, or a community of the rich and famous like Jimmy Saville. Where a priest is the one bestowing immunity on someone because of religious privilege, then yes, they should be criminalised. Where is the outrage on behalf of the 8 year old who has suffered at the hands of an adult who should know better? Where is the priestly concern for a baby parishioner whose world has been torn asunder by this violation from ‘the redeemed’? Where is the concern for other children who might be affected in this way? Where is the theology to cover them? Why is Catholic theology seeking to circumvent the laws instituted to protect them?
In separating the “wrong from the wrongdoer”, primacy must be given to the wronged. The survivor of child abuse must be told, in words and deeds that their suffering matters, that they are valued, and that they will henceforth be protected. To hang justice on the hook of “sincere penitence” is callous to say the least. All this, and I have yet to even address the inequality created by this system whereby Catholics can ostensibly get away with murder by saying a few words to a man in a box. Those of different religious traditions, or none, do not have this option. Justice should undo the inequalities created by humans in their interactions with other humans. To take that away from little children and other vulnerable people who cannot fight for themselves is a sin, and a crime. While those priests and child abusers maybe absolved of their guilt by speaking to other priests, and thus save their eternal souls, their bodies deserve to spend significant amounts of time facing human justice, away from other vulnerable people, thinking about what they did.
Redemption, as I said previously, is eternal, but it’s also optional. Not everyone believes in it, or wants it, but justice is temporal, and we should all have access to it. For those who do not believe in eternity, justice here on earth is all they have, and that should not be taken away from them because of some shoddy argument that equates two very different things, in an effort to make it easier for certain, very bad people to get away with their foolishness. The church has robbed a lot of people of temporal justice under the guise of redemption. The buck stops here, it hasn’t before, but hopefully, thanks to this decision in Australia, forthwith, it always will.