At the European Sociological Association’ RN34 conference, a panel discussed contemporary criticism of secrecy in religion, from the Catholic Church to Scientology
by Alessandro Amicarelli
The European Sociological Association’s (ESA) Sociology of Religion Research Network (RN34) held its biennial conference, on “Religion in an unstable world: Challenges, transformations and future prospects” in Groningen, The Netherlands, but online due to COVID concerns, on July 13–15, 2022.
One of the panels was devoted to the theme “Sacred and/or Secret: Confession and Other Forms of Religious Secrecy.” The inspiration for the panel came from the recent book “Religious Confession and Evidential Privilege in the 21st Century,” edited by Mark Hill and A. Keith Thompson (Cleveland, Queensland: Connor Court Publishing, and Fremantle, Western Australia: University of Notre Dame Australia Press, 2021). Indeed, the publication of this book has been followed with great interest by scholars of religions, and panels have been organized in other academic conferences as well.
The book puts together legal and religious scholars from Australia, Ireland, the U.S., the U.K., Italy, Sweden, and Norway to discuss the issue of confessional secret and two contradictory impulses in modern Western societies. The first is to extend the protection of the confessional secret, from a privilege recognized to certain Christian churches to a broader right to confidentiality for ministers of all religions. The second is to limit the protection afforded to the secret, after its alleged misuse by the Catholic Church and other denominations to protect the perpetrators of sexual abuse of children. In several countries, there are now statutes or proposed statutes, resisted by the churches involved, that compel priests and pastors to disclose information received in confession if they are relevant to identify perpetrators of sexual abuse of children.
The panel went beyond the text by raising broader questions about secrecy and religion, with respect to both Christian churches and the Church of Scientology, which has been involved in controversies about secrecy and confidentiality.
Based on her 25-year experience as a diplomat who has worked inter alia at institutions of the United Nations and the European Union dealing with issues of human rights, privacy, and religious liberty, Rosita Šorytė examined the changing attitudes about the presence of secrets in religious and spiritual organizations. In the 19th century, particularly in the United States, there had already been campaigns against the alleged immorality of three secrets: of the Catholic confession, of the Masonic lodges, and of the Mormon temple rituals. In the early 20th century, Georg Simmel’s studies were often used (or misused) to argue that secret-keeping organizations were dangerous.
Later in the 20th century, however, Šorytė said, it was generally accepted that some religious and spiritual organizations had, by their very nature, secrets, the more so when their teachings were part of the tradition of Western Esotericism. In the 21st century, however, Šorytė noted, there was a return to a culture of suspect against secrets kept by religious and spiritual groups, after the pedophilia crisis in the Catholic Church and revelations that secret was used as a tool to cover sexual abuse in groups led by esoteric or Eastern masters. She argued that, while abuses did and do happen and cannot be protected by self-serving references to religious liberty, to keep certain teachings and practices secret is a time-honored feature of many religions, and should not necessarily be regarded as sinister. Sometimes, including in the case of Scientology, secrecy is germane to the teachings themselves.
Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist who serves as managing director of CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions), discussed contemporary controversies on confession. Because of the cases of pedophile Catholic priests, provisions that compel priests and pastors who learn of sexual abuse in confession to disclose what they have learned to secular authorities have been passed or proposed in almost all states and territories of Australia, in Ireland, and in some states of the U.S. The Catholic Church answers that the secret of the confession is inviolable, and priests who breach the seal of confession will be excommunicated, irrespective of what the civil law mandates.
In fact, Introvigne noted, the problem goes beyond the Catholic Church. The Eastern Orthodox churches and some Lutheran and Anglican churches keep practices similar to the Catholic confession. Several different groups, from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Church of Scientology, have argued that they have practices that should be equally protected. Introvigne reviewed first the arguments advanced by those who claim that the privilege accorded by the law to the secret of confession should be eliminated, particularly in cases of sexual abuse of children, then the arguments of their opponents. The Italian sociologist concluded that the secret of the confession in a secular society cannot be maintained as a privilege protecting specific religions, be they the Catholic Church or the national Orthodox or Protestant churches in some European countries, and in this sense is or will soon become “a thing of the past,” with some limited geographical exceptions. But it can be reformulated, and perhaps socially accepted, he said, as part of a religious confidential exchanges privilege applicable to all religions. In this sense, international convention on freedom of religion or belief do mandate that the confessional privilege should be respected, Introvigne concluded.
Donald Westbrook, a lecturer for the School of Information at San José State University and the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of both a landmark study on the daily experience of Scientologists and a recent book on Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard, noted that the Church of Scientology is often depicted in popular culture and the media as controversial and secretive. Westbrook explored the relationship and intersection between “Scientology studies” and “secrecy studies,” both of which have emerged in recent years as fruitful sub-disciplines that have value in religious studies and the sociology of religion.
But in what sense, asked Westbrook, are the Church of Scientology (as an institution) and Scientology (as a religious system) described as “secretive,” and how have these been explored in the secondary literature? What did L. Ron Hubbard have to say about the role of secrecy and confidentiality, both administratively and theologically? Much attention is usually placed on the confidential nature of the Operating Thetan (OT) levels, which can be understood as expressions of Scientology’s Western esotericism and Gnosticism. But most Scientologists, Westbrook said, have not reached the confidential OT levels, which take years to complete and are offered to members by invitation only. As of early 2022, fewer than 10,000 members have ever reached the highest of the available OT levels (i.e. OT VII and OT VIII), whereas over 74,000 have attained the state of Clear—and many more have completed lower-level introductory courses, Westbrook reported.
Indeed, according to Westbrook, the “everyday Scientologist” tends to be far more concerned with auditing (counseling, which is covered by priest-penitent privilege), auditor training, and volunteering for organizations such as The Way to Happiness, Citizens Commission on Human Rights, Applied Scholastics, Volunteer Ministers, and others. While the confidentiality of the Church of Scientology should be respected, Westbrook said, there is a rich material available to scholars to research Scientology in its history and theology, rather than focusing on controversies only. In fact, Scientology studies seem to be moving to a “2.0” stage where scholars discuss the Church of Scientology as they would do with any other religion.
Eric Lieberman, a New York attorney and the author of a chapter on Scientology in the book edited by Hill and Thompson, noted that the United States Constitution provides two interrelated protections for religious freedom, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. Yet, due to accidents of history, the privilege protecting secret communications between parishioners and ministers has rarely been analyzed in terms of constitutional protection. Rather, the privilege has been recognized as a matter of common law. This has led to different treatment of the privilege in the states and the federal courts, often with constitutionally suspect results.
According to Lieberman, however, an analysis of modern legal, social, and doctrinal developments compels the conclusion that the privilege must be accorded constitutional protection, including protection for those religious practices of some churches that provide that privileged communications may be heard by more than one minister and discussed by the ministers with their church superiors. Unlike the Catholic confession, the practice of auditing in Scientology may involve more than one minister simultaneously receiving a “confession” from the parishioner, and allows the ministers to take notes and share them with their supervisor, or hierarchical superior.
These practices, Lieberman explained, are not unique to Scientology, and indeed there have been in the United States court cases involving the Baptists and the Latter-day Saints, where “confession” also does not follow the one-on-one Catholic model. Courts have generally recognized that these practices are protected, too. Irrespective of what may be happening in other countries, the unique American approach to religious liberty, if tested, will probably afford protection to the confidentiality of Scientology’s auditing, Lieberman concluded.