It was only three years ago that Sydney Roman Catholic spokesman Father Lucas stated to the Sydney Daily Telegraph's Michelle Gazzulino, "There are absolutely no exceptions - under no circumstances at all can a priest betray a penitent".
The ecclesiastical situation has became more rigid when Pope Benedict XIII extended the Roman Catholic hand of acceptance to Anglican Priests to move across (as it were). This is a classic international illustration of a strengthening political voice of a world wide Church and, on the other hand, in conflict with a State (nation) on rules of evidence in the court system that governs both sinner and penitent.
In NSW, Section 127 of the Evidence Act 1995 protects Catholic and Orthodox ministers, as well as some clergy in sections of the Anglican Church where formal religious confessions are heard: 'A person who is or was a member of the clergy of any church or religious denomination is entitled to refuse to divulge that a religious confession was made, or the contents of a religious confession made, to the person when a member of the clergy.'
The legislation provides options to the clergy, and some Ministers will from time to time choose to withhold information that they have heard in confidence, but the words 'entitled to' in the legislation indicate that it is a matter for the clergy's conscience.
As a Baptist minister (retired), there are huge theological differences between Baptist theology and Roman Catholicism on matters of 'soul liberty', 'baptism', 'conversion', 'Salvation', 'church government', to name just five, as all these five exhibit a gulf of "protest" (Protestantism).
The idea behind 'soul liberty' is classic Protestantism. 'Soul Liberty' implies the need for every individual to make his or her own decision on religious matters. This is as far as is the east from the west to Roman Catholicism. (www.firstbaptistchurchofboston.org)
In my 35 years experience in various aspects of Baptist and inter-denominational ministry, the Roman Catholic position, in my view, can lead to further victimisation of the victims, while providing exoneration (a peace of mind) for the perpetrators. Whenever a decision needs to be made as to whom needs to be protected, in my view, according to Biblical teachings, it is the victim who must be provided with succour.
Baptists with this emphasis of theological 'soul liberty' (the conscience from the reading of Scripture) believe the Holy Spirit will guide the believer in making decisions in good conscience.
In doctrinal terms, this is an anathema to Roman Catholic policy (as expoused by Father Lucas) whose conscience can only be directed by the traditions and statutes of Rome.
In every situation, whenever I have been faced with such conversations, I have made it gently yet abundantly clear that as a Baptist minister, under 'soul liberty', I weigh up the considerations and will determine whether or not to divulge information to the authorities.
In my experience over 35 years in Christian ministry, those who have committed crime and have come for a conversation, have found themselves so relieved that they had finally told 'someone'. Moreover, they have an inner unrelenting urge to come clean and face the consequences, regardless of the shame.
Moreover, I've been an eye-witness on several occasions in viewing a weight being lifted off their soul. 'Soul liberty' liberates ministry and in a beneficial way, strangely liberating for the penitent.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html