The antiquated legal allowances afforded to confession practices fall into sharp relief against the ever-increasing securitisation of Muslim communities writes Hodan Yusuf
Content warning: sexual assault
Last week Catholic leaders in Australia refused a recommendation from an inquiry that would force priests to report sexual abuse to the police when they hear about it in confession. This is due to the Catholic Church’s “Seal of Confession” which they say is a sacred rite protecting anything said within it.
The Church penalises priests that break this privileged arrangement, claiming that it will discourage penitents from confessing their sins. Even though abuse remains an ongoing problem, and in spite of calls from lawyers to make reporting to authorities mandatory, here in the UK this seal also allows for abusers to be protected.
At the same time, the UK counter-extremism taskforce is working on enforcing a ban on foreign language sermons in a move aimed at fighting “hate-preachers”. A senior Government source told the Sunday Telegraph “If imams are speaking in another language it makes it far harder to know if radicalisation is taking place.”
I am not a Catholic, and this is certainly not a Catholic or Christian-bashing piece. I am simply a Muslim who is struck by the starkly differential treatment the two religious communities receive from the law.
I am a community mediator and one of the first things we were explicitly told in training, and also must inform our clients of in practice, is that mandatory reporting laws apply to us. We tell them that their session is confidential unless something is raised which affects the welfare and safeguarding of children. We are legally obliged to follow the child protection procedures. If it appears to us that any child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, we then have a legal responsibility to report this information to an agency with statutory powers, usually social services, to investigate and protect those children. No ifs, no buts.
I cannot fathom how someone can walk into a booth possibly confess to abusing children and the one listening cannot be made to report that confession.
This antiquated legal oversight falls into sharper relief when contrasted with the ever-increasing securitisation of Muslim communities. Mosques, imams, families and friends are under constant scrutiny by governments and law enforcement. Imams are expected to know all the comings and goings of worshippers who they lead in prayer.
People who are not familiar with Muslim congregational prayer need to understand this.
Muslims wash for prayer, remove their shoes then stand on mosque carpets in lines and rows while an imam stands in the front row and prays, the congregations follows the rituals. Imam recites from the Quran, we say a couple of Ameens and continue until the Imam ends the prayer, we follow suit. We basically pray behind this person, usually a man, and then disband. On Fridays, there is a short sermon, we pray, disband. We don’t have confessionals instituted into our structures. The imams rarely know most of the people attending and they can number hundreds and on occasions such as Eid, several thousands.
Imagine if there was a covenant similar to the Seal of Confession within Islamic tradition. Let’s call it the Haven against Haram, Asylum of Astaghfirullah, how about Sanctuary for Sins…okay, I know, I’m getting carried away now. But let’s imagine if this was a sacred rite for us. Picture this, Muslim leaders getting together to reject government, as clergy in Australia have in this story, and in the UK previously. Not possible.
Muslim communities are over-policed even though each time one lone wolf Muslim commits an act of terror or crime Imams line up to condemn the attack. They sometimes apologise for the actions of the perpetrator and may raise funds for the victims of their crimes. They even refuse to perform the last rites prayers over the corpse of the terrorist.
While UK authorities continue to harass Muslim communities, the Catholic Church is giving perpetrators of child sexual abuse a free pass – and UK law is allowing it. There have been allegations that even at its highest ranks, the Church has turned its gaze from abuse, such as in the ongoing controversy relating to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Richard Scorer, a representative with the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), said during a hearing last November the failure to make reporting suspected abuse a crime had allowed [Catholic] clerics to evade responsibility. He told the hearing that “A mandatory reporting law would have changed their behaviour.”
This is not to say that Imams too have not been convicted of child sexual abuse. I am not denying this, nor the unacceptable stigma and shame around abuse within Muslim communities which hinders reporting. This is not to trivialise this as somehow lesser to the Catholic Church’s issues. Child abuse affects children from all religious backgrounds and communities. It scars deeply and the trauma of childhood abuse often stays with people for a lifetime.
Rather, I want to interrogate the institutional privilege afforded the Church, and how this is being maintained. No community should be given opportunity to avoid reporting crimes, but the question is: why is there such a huge chasm of difference between the treatment of Catholics and Muslims? It’s not too difficult to see vested interests, racism and class all at play.
Confession is a space where people are readily admitting to crimes of child sex abuse. Surely this is an opportunity for police to find perpetrators and prevent further abuse. Like I said, in Muslim communities the spaces for prayer are much more anonymous. We don’t have these opportunities to identify crime or criminal behaviour. For us the task relates to creating that infrastructure. In the Church, its already there.
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