WA moves to force clergy to break seal

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A Franciscan priest hears confessions outdoors at a gathering in New York. Photo: CNS, Gregary Shemitz
A Franciscan priest hears confessions outdoors at a gathering in New York. Photo: CNS, Gregary Shemitz

Priests in Western Australia will soon have to report information about child sexual abuse gained under confession under changes to the state’s mandatory reporting laws.

The WA Government said it expected to introduce the necessary amendments in the second half of this year.

The new requirements would apply to “recognised leaders within faith communities who are authorised to conduct, religious worship”, the government said.
Priests found to have not reported child sexual abuse revealed in confession will be fined $6,000.

Related article: Simcha Fisher: 17 ways to make confession easier for your kids

Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB of Perth said the changes would cause great stress and concern to many people of faith, especially Catholics.

He said in a statement that in the Catholic tradition the sacrament of Penance, also called Reconciliation or Confession, is an essential dimension of faith requiring absolute confidentiality.

“Put simply, a person does not confess his or her sins to the priest, but rather to Christ who is present in and through the ministry of the priest,” he said.

Pope Francis hears confessions
Pope Francis hears the confession of a priest March 7, 2019, at Rome’s Basilica of St. John Lateran. The pope administered the sacrament to several priests during his annual Lenten meeting with the priests of the Diocese of Rome. PHOTO: CNS/Vatican Media

“The priest has no right to reveal anything he hears in the confessional because in a very real sense what is revealed is made known only to God.

“To threaten priests with prosecution if they remain faithful to this foundational teaching of the Church is to run the risk of interfering with the free practice of the Catholic faith.”

Archbishop Costelloe said it was also unlikely child abusers would confess their crimes as they are “notoriously unrepentant and often convinced their actions are neither sinful nor shameful and are in fact part of the normal range of acceptable human behaviour”.

In addition, it is so unlikely as to be practically impossible to conceive of an abuser going to confession in a setting in which his or her identity could be known or guessed, he said.

Related article: Archdiocese cool on new confession law

Child Protection Minister Simone McGurk said that the changes were in response to recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

She told media that she understood the position of the Catholic Church and Archbishop Costelloe who expressed concern about child abuse as “an urgent” issue but did not want confession to be affected. “As a Government we have an obligation to put in place laws and to implement those laws to make sure that children in our community are safe and that is what we are doing,” Ms McGurk said.

If the proposed changes go ahead Western Australia will join the Northern Territory and South Australia in requiring religious ministers to report information about child sexual abuse revealed during confession.