The law applies to Western Australia, the largest of the Australian states. Entering into force on November 1, 2022, it obliges ministers of religion to report all cases of child abuse, including those for which the information obtained would have been within the framework of the Sacrament of Penance.
These changes are part of new laws introduced by the government of Mark McGowan, currently Premier of Western Australia. However, this law was passed in October of 2021.
The law specifies that priests will be considered culpable if they failed to report the fact that the information was revealed to them during the administration of the Sacrament of Penance.
The omission of such a report is a crime in this Australian state – as in many countries of the world – punishable by a maximum penalty of $6,000 AUD.
A Growing Restriction
Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth defended the secrecy of confession as essential to the Catholic Faith before a Western Australian parliamentary inquiry.
Acknowledging the “appalling history” of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the archbishop said he understood why people were appalled by his insistence on maintaining the principle of absolute confidentiality of the sacrament as practiced in the Catholic Church.
“But,” he explained, “sins are not confessed to the priest, but to God. … The priest therefore has neither the right nor the authority to reveal anything that happens in this intimate encounter with God.… Making illegal the free practice of an essential aspect of the Catholic faith seems to me something that modern secular societies have always understood to be beyond the limits of their authority.”
The Minister of Child Protection, Simone McGurk, said the government is committed to implementing the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse published in 2017.
But the parliamentarians willfully ignored a recommendation from the state’s permanent legislative commission, dating from September 2020, asking that sacramental confession be excluded from the scope of the law on the denunciation of abuses committed on minors.
Other States Concerned
Western Australia is not the first Australian state to issue such legislation. It is the fifth Australian state – out of six – to have launched the offensive against the secrecy of sacramental confession after Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, and finally, in September 2020, the State of Queensland.