Martin Hislop reports on the situation in Australia


The Anglican Communion,’ Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher famously wrote, ‘has no peculiar thought, practice, creed or confession of its own. It has only the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church, as preserved in the Catholic Creeds and maintained in the Catholic and Apostolic constitution of Christ’s Church from the beginning.’ The Anglican Church of Australia (ACA) has deliberatively departed from that understanding of the catholic faith by overturning and subverting the sacraments of holy orders and reconciliation or confession.

In an obsessive and craven bid to curry favour with the secularist commentariat of Australian society, and in a bid to deflect culpability for shameful failures to protect the most vulnerable, the ACA through its General Synod has enacted canons that strike down the clear and undoubted Anglican understanding of the indelibility of holy orders and the inviolate nature of confession shared with the church universal through the centuries. 

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was the largest royal commission in Australia’s history and one of the largest public inquiries into institutional child abuse internationally. With an investment from the Australian government of half a billion dollars (about 270 million pounds) it examined how institutions with a responsibility for children, both historically and in the present, have responded to allegations of child sexual abuse. Announced in 2013 in the wake of previous Australian and international inquiries, public scandals and lobbying by survivor groups, its establishment reflected increasing recognition of the often lifelong and intergenerational damage caused by childhood sexual abuse and a strong political commitment to improving child safety and wellbeing in Australia. 

Its searing investigations and revelations into individual and institutional failings and criminality exposed the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches in particular to widespread criticism and loss of public confidence and respect. It has been comparable in significance and impact to the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Commission) in Ireland, which reported in 2009. As with that inquiry, which revealed endemic abuse in once revered Irish church and state institutions, the Australian Royal Commission has laid bare the sobering reality of institutional child sexual abuse and its often profoundly negative impact on individuals, families, and communities.

The Royal Commission’s final report with its 409 recommendations was handed to the Governor General of Australia in December 2017. Of all the institutions examined, the Roman Catholic church receives by far the greatest attention in the Report, but the recommendations on governance, safeguarding protocols and state regulation impacts upon all faith groups including the ACA. One specific recommendation is that laws concerning mandatory reporting to child protection authorities should not exempt people in religious ministry from being required to report on the basis of information disclosed in confession.

Even before the Royal Commission was established the former Primate of Australia and Archbishop of Brisbane, Dr Philip Aspinall, had been driving an agenda for reform of the ACA’s disciplinary and licensing policies and procedures under the name of safeguarding. Characteristic of his personal leadership style and corporatist managerial concept of the church, this agenda increasingly embraced centralist structures and powers with consequential undermining of the vocational nature of ministry and serious eradication of adequate protection for and application of natural justice to individuals.

Bishops of the ACA have been ‘defrocking’ priests and bishops at an extraordinary rate, and not through the hitherto canonical processes akin to the CofE’s Clergy Discipline Measure, but through investigations and recommendations of diocesan professional standards officers. These bodies—that have no statutory authority—have been criticized for their lack of due care and attention to rules of natural justice and evidence. A detailed and damming critique of the ACA’s disregard for natural justice was outlined in an article in the QUT Law Review (Munro, Howard: ‘Punish our Trespasses! An Examination of Private Tribunal Law as Applied in the Anglican Church’s Trial of Bishop Donald Shearman’).

On 14 October 2015, Bishop Keith Slater’s successor as Bishop of Grafton (the Rt Revd Dr Sarah Macneil) deposed Bishop Slater ‘from Holy Orders in the Anglican Church of Australia… in accordance with the recommendation of’ the Professional Standards Board of the Diocese of Grafton. This purported deposition of her predecessor from holy orders was not for any personal sexual offence but for shortcomings in his administration of safeguarding during his episcopate. It is telling and deeply disturbing that in her purported ‘Instrument of Deposition’ she explicitly declares that her predecessor is deposed from ‘Holy Orders in the Anglican Church of Australia’ thereby repudiating Archbishop Fisher’s assertion that the Anglican Communion ‘has no peculiar thought, practice, creed or confession of its own. It has only the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church, as preserved in the Catholic Creeds and maintained in the Catholic and Apostolic constitution of Christ’s Church from the beginning.’ In the case of the Diocese of Grafton, these actions have in fact been declared null and void by the ACA’s own appellate tribunal.

Recently one of Australia’s leading lay activists, Dr Muriel Porter, who has served on General Synod for over 30 years, published a devastating critique of the Anglican Church in Australia and its departure from natural justice and theological and gospel principles entitled ‘The clergy victims of the Anglican Church sexual abuse crisis.’

The Australian General Synod and the Australian House of Bishops are grappling with the issue of the seal of the confessional, although the actual number of Anglicans in Australia who make use of private confession is miniscule. In March 2011 the Australian bishops issued a protocol entitled ‘Private Confession: Pastoral Guidelines with special reference to child sexual abuse.’ In its opening paragraph the document states:

‘Canon Law also regulates what is known as the Seal of the Confessional. This means that a priest must not reveal any sin that is revealed when hearing a confession. It is important to note the difference between admission to a sin and confession of a sin. If a person admits to a crime the priest may be bound to report the matter to the police. If a penitent confesses a sin which is also a crime the priest is bound by the Seal of the Confessional.

Should a priest form the view that a person wishes to reveal a criminal offence, the priest should immediately give an explanation of the limits to confidentiality and the conditions of the granting of absolution if a formal confession (according to a Rite of the Church) is made. These may include reporting the criminal offence to the police and making reparation to the victim. If a person wishes to proceed with the formal confession then the priest and the would-be penitent should go to some private place (ideally the parish church) where the confession would be heard.

It is essential that a Rite of the Church is used. If a Rite of the Church is not used the priest may have no privilege to refuse to disclose the confession in legal proceedings in jurisdictions where such a privilege is available and could be found guilty of contempt of court for refusing to reveal the matter of the confession.’

In a qualification to this understanding of the seal and of significance to the competence of an individual priest to hear any such confession, the Australian bishops mandate the ‘Guidelines for the Hearing of Confessions and the Granting of Absolution with special reference to Child Sexual Abuse.’ They include the provision:

‘Care must be taken when a penitent comes to confession that the confession is heard and absolution is pronounced according to an authorised rite of the Church.’ Furthermore, this document asserts that ‘The granting of absolution in confessions involving child sexual abuse is reserved to priests holding a special licence or authority from the bishop… All confessions involving child sexual abuse are to be referred forthwith to a priest holding the bishop’s licence to administer absolution in such cases.’ In other words the priest (unless specially licensed) must decline to pronounce absolution and refer the matter on. In practical terms one does have to ask how this will operate in the Australian church where the nearest priestly colleague may be hundreds of miles away. Nevertheless this protocol and any determinations by the General Synod are likely to be subject to statutory regulation by the various state parliaments as they adopt the Royal Commission’s recommendation on the removal of legal protection for the seal in matters relating to child sexual abuse.

In the controversy concerning the treatment of priests in the Roman Catholic church who commit sexual offences, Cardinal Avery Dulles SJ stated:

‘Involuntary loss of the clerical state can be imposed by a judicial sentence or by a special act of the Pope (Canon 290). But such removal from the clerical state should be exceedingly rare, since it obfuscates the very meaning of ordination, which confers an indelible consecration. It reinforces the false impression that priesthood is a job dependent on contract rather than a sacrament conferred by Christ.’

This brings us back to the question of deposition from holy orders, which has become a default position for the ACA. Surely there arises now the significant question as to whether the ACA can continue to be considered to be ‘Anglican’ as understood by Archbishop Fisher and whether it can be entitled to be considered ‘in communion with the See of Canterbury.’


Father Martin Hislop is the vicar of St Luke’s, Kingston upon Thames, and previously ministered in his native Australia.