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Australia: General Offensive Against the Secrecy of Confession

“There will be no excuse for failing to make a mandatory report because a minister’s belief was based on information disclosed to the minister during a religious confession, or because making the report would otherwise be contrary to the tenets of the minister’s faith or religion.” The Western Australian government press release following the MPs vote fell like a hammer on October 14, 2021.

In this state of 2.6 million people, part of the Australian federation, Australian Catholics are dumbfounded and confused.

It should be noted that the parliamentarians voluntarily ignored a recommendation of the permanent legislative committee of the State, dating from September 2020, asking that the sacramental confession be excluded from the scope of the law on the denunciation of the abuses carried out on minors.

On the side of the Catholic hierarchy, it is bitterness: in his pastoral letter published on October 21, Msgr. Timothy Costelloe, Archbishop of Perth, evokes the “disappointment” and the “confusion” which gripped him on learning of the adoption of the contested amendment.

And the prelate recalled that “in the teaching of the Catholic Church, the priest acts in the person of Christ: very concretely, in the case of a penitent who is the victim of violence, the disclosure of the violence suffered is made to the Christ who, in the person of the priest, listens, advises, encourages and helps this person in all possible ways.”

Also, the priest cannot “betray the confidence of the penitent who comes into the confessional, to confide that he has been the victim of abuse.”

Archbishop Costelloe further recalls that “the same approach will be taken by the priest if someone confesses this time to a crime of abuse. The priest will then do everything in his power to convince the confessed aggressor that he must turn himself over to the police.”

Conversely, the new law will have a perverse effect, warns the archbishop, because from now on, those guilty of abuse will no longer take the risk of going to confession and therefore, “every chance, even weak, for the priest, to succeed in convincing the culprit to turn himself in, vanishes.”

For the prelate, of course, there is no question of compromising on the secrecy of confession: “many people will criticize me, as well as the Catholic Church in general, for its opposition to this legislative change. They will seek to portray the Church as a mother insensitive to the horror of the abuses committed within her. This is both inaccurate and unfair,” laments the Archbishop of Perth.

But whatever happens, “we will not be discouraged by those who seek only to demolish, criticize, and undermine the good works done by the Church,” concludes Msgr. Costelloe.

Following the vote of October 14, Western Australia has become the 5th Australian state – out of six – to have launched an offensive against the secrecy of sacramental confession in more than a year: Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, and in September 2020 finally the State of Queensland.

Such legislation shows a profound ignorance both of the sacrament of penance and of human psychology: further proof, if need be, that there, as elsewhere, it is indeed the Catholic Church that they are seeking to attack.

It should be noted that some abused people courageously and publicly defended the secrecy of confession, having found in this sacrament the support they needed.

On October 14, 2021, the Western Australia Parliament voted to adopt an amendment to the Child Welfare Act requiring all ministers of the Catholic religion to report any child abuse heard as part of the sacrament of penance. A decision that the Catholic Church contests.

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