‘Sins are not confessed to the priest, but to God’, Archbishop Costelloe tells Parliamentary Committee

11 Sep 2020

By The Record

A young Perth Catholic woman prepares to attend the Sacrament of Confession. Photo: Sourced.

Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB has once again been called upon to defend the faith – this time before a State Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry on 6 August in response to the Children and Community Services Amendment Bill 2019.

In an Open Letter to the Perth Catholic community on 2 July, Archbishop Costelloe said that one of the main purposes of the amendments to the Children and Community Services Act 2004 is to introduce mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse for ministers of religion, which includes ‘religious confession’.

Furthermore, this is not limited to confession but to all aspects of a priest’s ministry.

“The impact of the proposed amendment is that any information disclosed to a priest during the course of Confession, which leads the priest to believe that a minor is being sexually abused, must be reported to the authorities, irrespective of the wishes of the penitent,” Archbishop Costelloe explained in the Open Letter.

Archbishop Costelloe was joined at the hearing by Coptic Orthodox priest Father Abram Abdelmalek, who was representing the Coptic and Oriental Orthodox Churches.

“In my eight-and-a-half years as the Archbishop of Perth, I’ve never tried to do anything other than acknowledge that dreadful history [of sexual abuse], nor have I walked away from the need to translate words into actions,” Archbishop Costelloe stated before the Committee.

“And it’s because of this that I understand why people are confused, or even dismayed by my insistence on upholding the principle of the absolute confidentiality of confession, as it is practiced in the Catholic Church.

“However, sins are not confessed to the priest, but to God,” Archbishop Costelloe explained.

“The priest therefore has no right or authority to disclose anything that takes place in this intimate encounter with God.

“To make the free practice of an essential aspect 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,” he added.

His words echo the “note of the Apostolic Penitentiary on the importance of the internal forum and the inviolability of the sacramental seal”, which was approved by Pope Francis and published by the Vatican on 1 July 2019, in light of the proposed legislative challenges to the seal being instigated by several governments around the world, including Australia.

“The priest, in fact, comes to know of the sins of the penitent ‘non ut homo sed ut Deus’ — not as a man, but as God – to the point that he simply ‘does not know’ what was said in the confessional because he did not listen as a man, but precisely in the name of God,” the Vatican document said.

“A confessor’s defence of the sacramental seal, if necessary, even to the point of shedding blood,” the note said, “is not only an obligatory act of allegiance to the penitent but is much more: it is a necessary witness – a martyrdom – to the unique and universal saving power of Christ and his Church.”

“Any political action of legislative initiative aimed at breaking the inviolability of the sacramental seal,” it said, “would be an unacceptable offense against the liberty of the church, which does not receive its legitimacy from individual states, but from God.”

The Perth Archbishop’s written submission was presented to the Committee of Inquiry by Friday, 24 July 2020 and was informed by his Pastoral Letter to the Archdiocese of Perth – released on 18 May 2020 (Click Here to Read the Pastoral Letter).

“My Pastoral Letter (The eRecord – 2 July 2020) outlined not only my views on these proposed amendments to the Children and Community Services Bill 2019 but also Catholic teaching and the fundamental theological reasons which underpin the Sacrament of Penance in our Catholic tradition,” Archbishop Timothy said.

“As I stated then (The eRecord – 2 July 2020), I remain fully committed to the safety of children and young people within the Archdiocese of Perth: any person with allegations of sexual abuse by Church personnel should go to the police – our Catholic Professional Standards Office stands ready to assist people to do so.

“The sexual abuse of children and young people is an abhorrent crime wherever, whenever and by whomever it is perpetrated and I recommit the Archdiocese of Perth to its ongoing safeguarding initiatives that are in place across all our agencies.”

The State Government’s position, as explained by the Hon Sue Ellery (Leader of the House), when presenting the bill to the Legislative Council on 21 May, expedited WA’s expansion of the scheme to ministers of religion (over and above the other groups that were recommended to become mandated reporters).

“The royal commission noted that many religious institutions had institutional cultures that discouraged reporting of child sexual abuse and that mandatory reporting obligations may help persons in religious ministry to overcome cultural, scriptural, hierarchical and other barriers to reporting,” Ms Ellery said.

The full video of Archbishop Costelloe’s presentation to the committee is available by Clicking Here.

From pages 26 to 27 of Issue 25: Crises and Trauma of The Record Magazine