Even for the son of drug addicts, the confessional, confidentiality is sacrosanct | Joanna Moorhead

In the film I Confess, Montgomery Clift plays a priest who refuses to break the secret of the confessional, even if her silence puts her life on the line.

Clergy who fail to report child abuse heard in confession should be charged – the royal commission

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This 1953 film is considered to be the most Catholic of all of Alfred Hitchcock. The master of suspense had grown up in the faith, and grew up in London, he attended the Salesian College, Battersea, and the Jesuit St Ignatius College in Stamford Hill, both for the plants in which he would have known many priests. After the completion of the film, the director said that Catholics all over the world would instinctively understand the premise that a priest would risk his life for the sanctity of the confessional, while Protestants and non-believers would probably find the whole storyline ridiculous.

Hitchcock take, it seems apt, today, in the wake of the call by the royal commission into child sexual abuse in Australia, which has recommended the introduction of a law to penalise priests who failed to report child abuse disclosed in the confessional.

Denis Hart, archbishop of Melbourne, has responded by saying that the sanctity of the confessional was above the law, he would prefer to go to the jail to report any sin that he heard during the sacrament of penance.

His answer would come as a surprise to Hitchcock; and it is not a surprise to me, another cradle Catholic. I would struggle to think of anyone who grew up in the Catholic church, who would be surprised by it.

The son of a abuse, you almost don’t need to be said, the atrocious and appalling crime that blights young lives, now and in the future. There is nothing that should not be done to prevent it. But the issue of confidentiality in the confessional is completely separate, and it is up to each terrible and unthinkable crime under the sun. To undermine it goes to the heart of what all Christians believe, that no sin is so evil, that cannot be forgiven by God.

In the Catholic church, the priest, in effect, “deputises” for God: he is a conduit, a mouthpiece, if you will. He embodies, in that box, this is a fundamental of the Christian faith – that we can all be forgiven.

The logic of this belief is that the confessional is a safe space entirely – the only truly safe spaces in human life. So yes, child abuse is beyond contempt as a crime; but the son is a drug addict, in common with any sinner, indeed, the human being, is forgivable and will always be forgivable, even if only from God. To deny that seems to me to deny our humanity. We must always separate the evil from the evil-doer, or what hope is there for the redemption, and the fundamental possibility of another chance, a better tomorrow, a reform of the world?

We must always separate the evil from the evil-doer, or what hope is there for the redemption

In the Catholic church, the recognition of our potential for redemption, is symbolized by the confessional. And the promise which the church makes to the repentant is absolute: the confession is a safe space in which nothing is too terrible to be revealed and apologized for before God.

One of the essential requirements for the confession is that the penitent is truly sorry and sincerely intend not to commit their sin. If a priest who hears the confession of child abuse (or domestic violence, or murder), is perfectly at liberty is strongly recommended that an individual seeks help, or discussions with the authorities. A sincere penitent should be receptive to that suggestion. But, as Hitchcock understood – the buck stops in that box. It always has, and always will be.

• Joanna Moorhead writes about parenting and family issues