Prelate fronts WA inquiry

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Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB told a parliamentary inquiry that even the Pope cannot revoke the confidentiality of the sacrament of confession for any reason. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Scrapping the seal impossible and could cause harm

Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB has appeared before a WA parliamentary committee to defend the seal of confession in the Catholic Church as essential to the practice of the faith.

He was joined by Coptic Orthodox priest Father Abram Abdelmalek representing the Coptic and Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Archbishop Costelloe, who has also lodged a written submission to the committee’s inquiry into proposed changes to the state’s child protection laws, said he supported priests being mandatory reporters of child sexual abuse, but that the obligation should not be expanded to include information gained by clergy during the sacrament of confession.

No matter how well-intended, the proposed legislation would not make children and young people any safer and may in fact, given the inviolable trust in the confidentiality of the confessional, “make the situation worse for young people who are experiencing abuse or for older people who are seeing to address the abuse they suffered as a child”, he told the standing committee on legislation chaired by Dr Sally Talbot on 6 August.

“I sincerely believe [it] runs the real risk of achieving exactly the opposite of what it is trying to achieve,” he said.

In addition, as confession plays an essential role in the practice of the Catholic faith, outlawing the seal in some cases would render priests “who remain faithful to the obligations they assumed at the time of their ordination, and were simply exercising an essential aspect of the practice of the Catholic faith, liable to prosecution and conviction as criminals”.

The strict confidentiality around the sacrament of reconciliation is essential to the Catholic faith, say bishops. PHOTO: CNS, Gregory Shemitz

Sacramental confession is an “intimate encounter between an individual person who recognises that he or she is a sinner, and God from whom forgiveness of sin comes”, the archbishop explained.

“Sins are not confessed to the priest, but to God. The priest therefore has no right or authority to disclose anything that takes place in this intimate encounter with God.

“To make the free practice of an essential aspect of the Catholic faith illegal seems to me to be something that modern secular societies have always understood to be beyond the limits of their authority.”

Both clerics said that they had not previously been consulted on the Children and Community Services Amendment Bill 2019 as it affected churches in their practice of the sacrament.

Archbishop Costelloe said that advice from the Holy See to the Federal Government in response to a recommendation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, including in relation to confession, would be formally communicated at a meeting between representatives of the Australian Catholic’s Bishop’s Conference and the Attorney General in early September.

In May the archbishop wrote a sharp rebuke to Western Australia’s Child Protection Minister Simone McGurk after she called on him to support forcing priests to disclose information about child abuse discussed in confession.

Introducing the new legislation for debate on 13 May Ms McGurk said that the Catholic Church had “resisted change in this area, and publicly opposed breaking the seal of confession” and that it was time for “the Church’s leadership to put child safety first.”

In February a similar law came into effect in Victoria where priests now face a penalty of up to three years in prison if they do not disclose information about child abuse gained during the sacrament of confession.

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Confession must never be violated, says Vatican
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