Church setback over confession in Western Australia

By Marilyn Rodrigues
Catholic Weekly
September 16, 2020

Both major parties to support law affecting sacrament

A push to force priests to report information on child sexual abuse gained during confession looks likely to continue in Western Australia despite a parliamentary committee’s recommendation that it would be an ineffective measure against abuse.

The recommendation was made in a report by the Standing Committee on Legislation on the Children and Community Services Amendment Bill 2019, which passed the state’s Legislative Assembly in May and will be considered by the upper house. 

In its current form, the bill is in line with WA’s Premier Mark McGowan and Minister for Child Protection Simone McGurk’s commitment to require priests to break the sacrament’s absolute confidentiality in known or suspected cases of child sexual abuse.

The five-member WA committee recommended last week that “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.”  

But Liberal Opposition Leader Liza Harvey said on 15 September that her party had decided against supporting the recommendation.

According to media reports, the Shadow Minister for Child Protection and vice-chair of the committee Nick Goiran, along with fellow committee members Liberal MP Simon O’Brien and Nationals MP Jacqui Boydell, had formed the majority leading to the advice that priests not be subject to criminal sanctions for upholding the sacramental seal.The committee report “outlines evidence that demonstrates that the McGowan Government’s approach will be ineffective” Mr Goiran said in a statement.

“Meanwhile I have argued that the other four groups [of recommended mandatory reporters] should be included, especially child care workers and child protection workers.”

The WA report was published as Queensland passed a law requiring priests in its state to disclose a reasonable belief gained during confession that a child sex offence has occurred or face three years in jail.

Most submissions opposed intervening with sacrament of confession

In its report published on 10 September the committee chaired by Sally Talbot MLC said that more than 90 percent of more than 600 inquiry submissions were opposed to breaking the seal of confession.

“This has attracted opposition from Catholic and Orthodox stakeholders on a number of grounds, including that priests risk excommunication for breaking the seal of confession, and victims who access the confessional value its absolute confidentiality,” the report said.  

The committee recommended that the state government consult with religious ministers on “non-statutory provisions that would facilitate the effective use of information received during religious confession”.  

Perth Archbishop Timothy of Costelloe and Coptic Orthodox priest Father Abram Abdelmalek, representing the Coptic and Oriental Orthodox Churches, appeared at a hearing held by the committee on 6 August.  

Both confirmed “that they support the introduction of mandatory reporting for ministers of religion, with the exception of the confession,” the committee noted.  

“priests risk excommunication for breaking the seal of confession, and victims who access the confessional value its absolute confidentiality”

Archbishop Costelloe had expressed his “sincere belief” that the law would risk making make the situation worse for present or past abuse victims, as well as make faithful priests “liable to prosecution and conviction as criminals”.  

Mr Goiran said the evidence received by the committee was that victims, not perpetrators, are the ones who may raise abuse in confession “and they pleaded that their confidence not be compromised”.

“What is particularly shocking is that the committee found that the Government’s bill does not include any of the other four groups of mandatory reporters recommended by the Royal Commission,” he added.

“The worst example of this is the Department’s own child protection workers. It is crucial that the Government is accountable for its child protection priorities and that it only introduces provisions that will be effective.”

In Queensland, Rockhampton’s Bishop Michael McCarthy says his priests will not break the seal of confession despite the state’s new law.  

“Confession is conversation between that person and God,” Bishop McCarthy told media. 
“Certainly, in confession there is the opportunity to say to people, if it is criminal, or evil, then it is time to go and talk to the police.” 

The legislation passed the QLD parliament on 8 September with support from both major parties and applies to information received from now, even if it relates to historical abuse.  
Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge said in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry earlier this year that safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults and respecting the seal of confession “are not mutually exclusive”. 

The Queensland law follows similar ones enacted in the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania after the 2017 report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The Australian Catholic Bishops have passed on to the Federal Government advice to them from the Vatican that it supports in principal or has already achieved most of the relevant recommendations, but will not change its position on the inviolability of the seal of confession.



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