Perth archbishop slams confession seal ‘slur’

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A priest hears a young person’s confession. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Minister’s comments called out as ‘virtue signalling’

Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB has written 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.”

“The Catholic Archbishop of Perth has made his position on this very clear,” she said. “The extension of mandatory reporting to ministers of religion signals very clearly that child safety is the number one priority. I call on the archbishop to make that statement by supporting this legislation in full.”

In his letter, sent also to the WA premier, Archbishop Costelloe said that the minister’s comments imply that in continuing to uphold the Church’s position on the seal of confession, he and the Church generally do not put child safety first.

Pope Francis greets Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth. Photo: CNS photo/Vatican Media
Pope Francis greets Archbishop Timothy Costelloe in 2019. Photo: CNS photo/Vatican Media

“This is an offensive slur on my character, and on the unstinting efforts of all the people who, in this archdiocese, are dedicating themselves to ensuring that everything possible is being done to ensure that children and young people are as safe as they can possibly be in Catholic institutions and settings,” the archbishop wrote.

“If you are indeed aware of my position, which is the position of the Catholic Church, you will know that to call on me to ‘make that statement…’ is in fact to call on me to make a statement which would immediately result in my suspension from the office of Archbishop of Perth and to have my faculties (permission) to function as priest withdrawn.

“Any priest who followed my advice…would also be immediately suspended.”

The archbishop wrote that the Royal Commission was aware that only the Pope has the authority to make changes to the Church’s universal law including in relation to the seal of confession.

“I can only assume…you were engaging in what might be called ‘virtue signalling’ in order to demonstrate your commitment and that of your government to child protection”

“If you were aware of this, then I can only assume that in making the statements you did you were engaging in what might be called ‘virtue signalling’ in order to demonstrate your commitment and that of your government to child protection,” he wrote.

“If this is the case then you are using your position for political advantage at the expense of the Church and at my expense. If this is true, and I hope it is not, then it is behaviour unworthy of an elected representative, especially as it instrumentalises the dreadful horror of child sexual abuse.

The archbishop acknowledged the Church’s “deplorable record” in dealing with the sexual abuse of minors in the past, but also that the work of the Church to safeguard children and young people  in recent years is “hardly ever acknowledged”.

“Forcing priests to break their solemn vows in relation to the Seal of Confession will not make any child or young person safer, but will, in all likelihood, make some more vulnerable to abuse,” he said.

Archbishop Costelloe also released a longer pastoral letter explaining the background to his missive to the minister and why supporting the proposed law “is simply not open” to him or better for children’s safety.

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.

Related articles:

Melbourne council push against seal of confession
Confession must never be violated, says Vatican
Simcha Fisher: 17 ways to make confession easier for your kids
Monica Doumit: We all need to protect the Seal
Priestly martyrdom to uphold confession isn’t new