First, some background about the Seal of Confession. According to Canon Law,
“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.” (Can. 983)
“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.” (Can. 984)
In other words, when a penitent tells something to a priest during the sacrament of confession, the priest is not allowed to talk about what was said, to anyone, for any reason. He is not even allowed to acknowledge that the person made a confession to him. A priest who does disclose this secret information without explicit permission from the penitent would be guilty of mortal sin, and would be automatically excommunicated.
Most states in the US have statutes which acknowledge that clergy, when hearing a confession made to them in their professional capacity, are not mandatory reporters. It is, of course, their spiritual duty to do whatever they can to find help for victims and to guide perpetrators toward turning themselves in.
As far as the state is concerned, the statutory respect for the seal of confession is intended to protect the penitent, not the confessor (although an unscrupulous confessor could certainly take advantage of the privilege in order to protect himself, if he did something wrong in the confessional). As far as I can tell, the same is true as far as Canon Law is concerned: the seal of confession is there to protect the penitent, not the confessor.
However, a penitent may give a priest permission to talk about what was confessed. The penitent may release him from the seal. And this is why the recent legal case in Louisiana doesn't quite make sense to me.
According to The Times-Picayune of Greater New Orleans, a girl says that, when she was twelve, she told a priest in confession that she had had some sexual relations with an older man who was prominent and active in the parish. The man has since died. The girl, now several years older, says that the priest told her not to tell anyone, to avoid hurting people. There is now a civil law suit in progress, and the Supere Court of Lousiana wants to compel the priest to reveal what the girl said in confession.
The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the seal of confession preempted the Civil Court
from ordering the priest to testify as to whether or not there was a confession and, if so, what the contents
of the confession revealed. The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit dismissed the case against both Fr.
Bayhi and the Catholic Church of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
A Writ of Certiorari was filed by the plaintiffs to the Supreme Court of Louisiana. The Supreme
Court of Louisiana granted the Writ, reversed and vacated the First Circuit Court of Appeals judgment, in
its entirety, reinstated the judgment of the trial court, and remanded for further proceedings in the District
Court to hold a hearing concerning whether or not there was a “confession.” We contend that such a
procedure is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the U. S. Constitution. The Supreme Court of
Louisiana cannot order the District Court to do that which no civil court possibly can—determine what
constitutes the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Catholic Church. Indeed, both state and federal
jurisprudence make clear that there is no jurisdiction to adjudicate claims that turn upon such purely
But as far as I can tell, the lawsuit trying to compel the priest to speak is being brought about by the girl's family. If she wants the information to be public, can she not simply release the priest from the seal? If the penitent wants the priest to talk, the priest is no longer morally compelled to keep silent. Is he morally permitted, under Canon Law, to keep silent, if the penitent give permission for him to discuss what was said? I am not sure. It certainly makes a difference.
Let me be clear: The Seal of Confession must remain inviolable. If, as in the Anglican Church in Australia, exceptions are made, then confession is meaningless. The whole point of confessing sins is that we leave them behind in the confessional. When Joan of Arc was trying to persuade the Bishop that she was truly a messenger of God, he asked her to prove it by asking God to tell her what he had confessed last. And the answer from God came: "I don't remember." The state must recognize that what happens in the confessional is of a spiritual nature, and it would be a serious violation of the First Amendment to ban priests and penitents from freely exercising the sacraments of their Church.
There is also a practical reason for the state to acknowledge the seal of confession: if guilty people are no longer confident that their words are secret, they will no longer confess -- and many of them will, therefore, never get the guidance, encouragement, and spiritual strength to stop committing the sins they are confessing.
So yes, Catholics should be horrified to see the priest-penitent privilege legally challenged, and we should pray that the Church's long-standing statutory privilege will not be challenged. If it is, many good priests will be facing contempt of court and even jail time, because their job is to bring souls to Christ, and not even the state must interfere with that. The Supreme Court of Louisiana is wrong to try to compel a priest to break the seal. This is beyond question.
At the same time, the Church must be exceedingly careful not to even give the appearance of using the seal of confession as a way of protecting predators and the priests who helped them hide. As Rod Dreher points out, the Church only has itself, and its recent behavior, to blame if secular folk are suspicious of any invocation of secrecy by the Church. Is that what is happening in this case? There is no indication that it is; but it still doesn't quite makes sense as it is being reported.
While the overarching principle of the absolute sanctity of the seal of confession must be upheld by both the Church and the State, it would behoove the Church to explain very clearly why the Seal exists, and how it benefits penitents. This is a golden opportunity for priests and bishops to clearly and strongly reiterate the Church's doctrine on confession, to remind them how vulnerable it makes priests, and how vital it is for penitents to understand what it is they are donig when they enter the confessional.