Western Australia's challenge to the Church over the secrecy of confession

The Archbishop of Perth, capital of the State of Western Australia, Most Reverend Timothy Costelloe SDB, has expressed his opposition to the recent law that forces priests to breach the seal of confession to report sexual abuse of minors, and break what he calls "the confidentiality of the confessional".

Rafael Miner-October 30, 2021-Reading time: 5 minutes

Western Australia's parliament last week passed a bill known as the Community and Family Services Amendment Bill 2021The law eliminates civil law protections for the confidentiality of the seal or secrecy of confession, and obliges priests to report sexual abuse of minors, even if it is manifested under the seal of confession.

A press release from the Australian state government states that "there will be no excuse for failing to make a mandatory disclosure," even if the chaplain received the information during a confession. In addition to priests, religious or chaplains, the changes extend mandatory reporting laws to early childhood workers, out-of-home care workers, registered psychologists, school counselors and juvenile justice workers.

A few days ago, the Archbishop of Perth, Timothy Costelloe, a Salesian, in a pastoral letter that you can read here heresaid that "the recent passage of legislation by the state legislature that removes civil law protections around confessional confidentiality has deeply disappointed and troubled me, as it has no doubt troubled many of you as well."

In his view, "not only does this decision by the state legislature potentially criminalize fidelity to an essential dimension of the practice of our Catholic faith by our priests, but it also carries with it no guarantee that any child will be better protected from abuse because of this decision."

The archbishop is "equally concerned that little or no attention seems to have been paid to the testimony of [victim] survivors of sexual abuse, who have spoken of the importance of the confidentiality of the confessional in providing them with a safe place to share their stories and seek information. support and counseling. Why does their experience seem to have no relevance or credibility?" he asks. According to sources cited by Die TagespostAs the portal Mercatornet reports, abolishing the confessional seal "will re-traumatize victims of abuse. The confessional was a safe space where victims can participate in the healing process. No more."

Decision contrary to the legislative committee

Moreover, adds the Archbishop of Perth, "it is particularly worrying that the majority opinion of the legislative committee set up by the government to investigate this matter has not been accepted by parliament."

"In a 3-2 majority decision, this committee recommended that disclosures made in the context of a religious denomination should not be subject to the new mandatory reporting laws," Archbishop Costelloe has explained, Melbourne native, who is a member of the Standing Committee, the Bishops' Commission on Doctrine and Morals and the Bishops' Commission on Catholic Education in the Australian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

About Perth, which is the fourth city of the State, with 2.12 million inhabitants, it does not hurt to look at the map and find out that the nearest city with a population of more than one million people is Adelaide, 2,100 kilometers away, which makes Perth the most isolated city with more than one million inhabitants in the world. As for its archbishop, he was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, after several years as auxiliary bishop of Melbourne.

"The priest provides support and accompaniment."

Archbishop Costelloe goes on to say, as Jamie O'Brien summarizes on the website of the archdioceseSome people seem to have formed the opinion that if a person discloses during confession that he has been abused, the priest cannot and will not do anything. "This is an ignorant or deliberately misleading presentation of the way confession is practiced in the Catholic Church. A priest will do everything possible to provide counseling, support and accompaniment if the person making the disclosure is open to this," he notes.

"All that person needs to do is to agree to share his story with the priest outside the context of confession. However, the priest, according to Catholic teaching, must not betray the trust of the person who comes to him in the confessional," the Archbishop points out.

"The experience of confession is a personal encounter between that person and Christ. In Catholic teaching, the priest acts in the person of Christ in this encounter. In a very real sense, the revelation is made to Christ who, in the person of the priest, listens, counsels, encourages and helps that person in every possible way. He does not betray that person's trust."

These are the same ideas that he picked up a few days ago. Omnes by Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Major Penitentiary of the Church. "The penitent does not speak to the man confessor but to God. To take possession of what belongs to God would be sacrilege. Access to the same sacrament, instituted by Christ, to be a safe harbor of salvation for all sinners, is protected." However, he clarified, "this does not prevent the confessor from strongly recommending that the minor himself denounce the abuse to his parents, educators and the police".

Now the possibility of convincing him is lost

The priest will do everything in his power to convince the confessed abuser that he must turn himself in to the police, the Australian archbishop also stresses. "While it may seem unlikely that an abuser would agree to this, at least the possibility exists. However, with the passage of this law it is almost inconceivable that a perpetrator would put himself at risk of being caught."

"Therefore," Archbishop Costelloe adds, "any admittedly small chance a priest might have had of trying to convince a perpetrator of the evil of his actions and encouraging or ordering that person to go to the police would be lost. And, of course, if a perpetrator risked confession, he would surely go to a priest who could not identify him. and who confessed in an environment that guaranteed anonymity."

Consequently, according to the archbishop, "it is legitimate to ask about the feasibility and enforceability of the legislative change, and this, of course, begs the question of why this legislation was allowed to pass through our parliament in the first place. Surely a key test of the adequacy of a law must be its enforceability."

Data, and reaction

Jamie O'Brien reports that other states, such as Queensland and Victoria, have also implemented similar legislation. The issue has been a hot topic in the Australian states after the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to publish its final report at the end of 2017. It noted that "36 percent of abuse survivors who came forward reported abuse in Catholic institutions," O'Brien says.

"Many people will criticize me and the Catholic Church in general for their opposition to this legislative change. They will seek to paint the Church as indifferent to the horror of the sexual abuse crisis within the Church. This is inaccurate and unfair," the Archbishop of Perth asserts. For "the Catholic Church across the country, and certainly here in the Archdiocese of Perth and in Western Australia generally, has taken many constructive steps to address this terrible reality in the Church's history."

His archdiocese was the first diocese in the world to launch a Safeguarding Office in 2015, with more than 250 trained Safeguarding Officers in more than 105 parishes, he states categorically. "Those of you who have children or young people in our schools will be aware of the seriousness with which our local schools, and the Catholic Education office that works with them, approach the issue of child safety," he says.

"The priests will remain at your service."

Monsignor Timothy Costelloe concludes his letter by reaffirming "three things". That his "commitment to the safety and well-being of our children and youth is unwavering." That "we will continue to respond with candor, compassion and generosity to those who have been victims and are now survivors of the terrible crime and sin of sexual abuse by persons associated with the Catholic Church." "And thirdly, that our priests will continue to place themselves at your service seeking as best they can to be living and effective signs bearers of the presence of the Good Shepherd among you."

"The Lord is calling us to live this out through our prayer for one another, our support for one another, our encouragement and understanding of one another, and through our determination to eradicate the scourge of sexual abuse from any of our Catholic environments. Together we can accomplish great things for God, for God's people and for our society. Let us not be discouraged by those who seek only to tear down, criticize and undermine the good works of the Church," he concludes.

A few days ago, we talked about the seal or secret of confession in the Church, and the abuse of minors in France. We have yet to comment on what the French Prime Minister, Jean Castex, said to the Pope, and what Francis called the sacrament of Pardon during his recent apostolic trip to Slovakia. That will be another day.

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