Western Australia recommends preserving the confessional seal

A committee from Western Australia’s Legislative Council recommends preserving the confessional seal.

In its report on the Children and Community Services Amendment Bill 2019, the Council’s legislation committee says:

“Ministers of religion be excused from criminal responsibility [of mandatory reporting] only when the grounds of their belief is based solely on information disclosed during religious confession.”

The amendment bill currently says priests must break the confessional seal to report known or suspected child sex abuse.

The committee says whether preserving the confessional seal is appropriate needs further consultation.

It suggests the Council “consult with ministers of religion on non-statutory provisions that would facilitate the effective use of information received during religious confession.”

The bill aims to implement some of the recommendations the Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse made in 2017.

Of the over 600 public submissions about the bill, 90 percent were opposed to breaking the confessional seal. Many were from Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Numerous priests noted the law would be unenforceable, as confessions are usually anonymous.

Archbishop Timothy of Costelloe and Fr. Abram Abdelmalek, an Oriental Orthodox priest, told the committee “they support the introduction of mandatory reporting for ministers of religion, with the exception of the confession.”

“The proposed law would render priests who remain faithful to the obligations that they assumed at the time of their ordination… liable to prosecution and conviction as criminals for being faithful to their commitments.

“To make the free practice of an essential part 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.”

If a priest heard a confession of child sex abuse they would be responsible to do their best to convince the perpetrator to stop it, Costelloe says.

This may involve persuading the perpetrator to give themselves in to the authorities – and accompanying them to help them do so.

“It is very clear that the priest has a fundamental responsibility to do everything he can without breaking the seal of the confession…”

Asked if Catholic priests would comply with a law requiring the violation of the sacramental seal, Costelloe told the committee:

“Every priest knows what his obligations are, and he knows what the penalties are of not being faithful to those obligations, and he also knows the basis of those obligations, and the basis of the obligations are divine law.”

He won’t be asking priests to break divine law.

The “well-intentioned” law could make matters worse for victims, Costelloe said.

This is because there is “no chance” a perpetrator could be convinced to do something about it. Nor will victims disclose abuse in the confessional as it wouldn’t be confidential.

Several Australian states and territories have adopted laws forcing priests to violate the confessional seal. New South Wales has upheld the seal.

The Vatican has reiterated the seal is inviolable and absolution cannot be conditioned on future actions in the external forum.


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