Last week, I wrote a post about the seal of confession, and how a priest in Lousiana is being threatened with contempt of court and jail time if he refuses to disclose what a girl told him in confession. In my post, I said:
However, a penitent may give a priest permission to talk about what was confessed. The penitent may release him from the seal.
If the penitent wants the priest to talk, the priest is no longer morally compelled to keep silent.
This is not accurate, and I appreciate the correction from so many readers. The Seal of Confession is utterly nviolable. According to Canon Law:
Can. 983 §1. The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.
§2. The interpreter, if there is one, and all others who in any way have knowledge of sins from confession are also obliged to observe secrecy.
Can. 984 §1. A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.
§2. A person who has been placed in authority cannot use in any manner for external governance the knowledge about sins which he has received in confession at any time.
If the penitent wants to talk to a priest about something that was said in confession, the priest must get permission from the penitent even to discuss it privately with the penitent. Fr. William Saunders of Christendom College says:
a priest may ask the penitent for a release from the sacramental seal to discuss the confession with the person himself or others. For instance, if the penitent wants to discuss the subject matter of a previous confession — a particular sin, fault, temptation, circumstance — in a counseling session or in a conversation with the same priest, that priest will need the permission of the penitent to do so. For instance, especially with the advent of "face-to-face confession," I have had individuals come up to me and say, "Father, remember that problem I spoke to you about in confession?" I have to say, "Please refresh my memory," or "Do you give me permission to discuss this with you now?"
I priest I know goes even further, and says, "My policy is to tell them that 'I don't remember things from the confesisonal. You'll have to tell me again.'"
Note that this doctrine covers how a priest gains the ability to discuss something with a penitent. From what I now understand -- and please correct me if I am still getting this wrong! -- if the priest or the penitent wishes to talk about something that was said in confession with a third party, he needs to have an entirely separate conversation, and then he may discuss that conversation.
So, for instance, let's say John Doe confesses kicking a dog. Later, John is in court for animal cruelty, and the judge wants the priest to disclose whether or not he confessed kicking a dog. Because of the seal of confession, the priest cannot even acknowledge that John went to confession to him, even if John says publicly that he did so. And if -- again, correct me if I'm wrong -- during the confession, John mentions that he saw his friend Steve kicking a cat, that information is also bound by the seal. Everything that is said during confession is secret, even if it's not a sin.
If John Doe is full of remorse and wants the priest to talk about what he confessed, what he can do is to give the priest permission to talk about what was said in confession; and the priest can then talk about that second conversation, which is not covered by the seal of confession. That is the only conversation the priest is free to discuss.
So, the seal of confession is still inviolable. If a penitent wishes the content of that conversation to be less private, then he needs to repeat that information in a setting which is not covered by the seal of confession.
The case in question in Louisiana is not about a guilty person wishing to come clean. As far as I can tell, the judge, and the family of the girl who went to confession, want the priest to violate the seal of confession because they believe it will incriminate the priest -- that he will be required to admit that he told the girl to cover up the crime of an older man, now dead, who was sexually abusing the girl.
It makes for an entirely different emotional story -- and I was horrified to see speculation in the comment box that the girl must be making things up to entrap the priest. There is no evidence that she is telling anything but the truth, and unfortunately we know that some priests and bishops did tell victims not to speak out.
But emotions aside, the facts about the seal of confession itself are the same in the actual news story and in my illustrative story: the seal of confession prevents the priest from talking about what was said inside the confessional -- even if the penitent tells him she wants him to talk, even if she wants him to talk about something that was not a sin on her part. He simply cannot do it. He can't implicate himself in wrongdoing, and he can't defend himself if he is innocent. This is at the core of his priesthood.