VATICAN CITY - This week, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary, issued a document defending the sacramental seal, as civil governments in California, Australia, and other places attempt to pass laws that would force priests to reveal what they hear in the confessional.

Piacenza also defended professional confidentiality, including the pontifical secret, and appeared to take aim at the use of leaked Vatican information in the media – suggesting leaks from the Vatican are detrimental to the public good.

“In a time of mass communication, in which all information is ‘burned’ [leaked] and with it often unfortunately also part of people's lives, it is necessary to re-learn the strength of word, its constructive power, but also its destructive potential,” the cardinal warned.

Following a year in which scandals of episcopal misconduct and accountability have combined to create a crisis of confidence in Church leadership in some places, reaction to the application and violation of confidentiality in the Church illustrates the emerging fault lines in a debate between parts of the hierarchy and faithful, in which both sides accept the need for transparency, though often with very different understandings of the word.

In his defense of the need to respect administrative (rather than sacramental) secrecy, Piacenza cited the Catechism, which teaches that “the right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional.” 

It is easy to think of ecclesial examples in which confidentiality, even secrecy, are for the good of souls, as Piacenza argued. For example, discretion about the Vatican’s support for evangelization efforts in persecuted areas, most notably in China and the Arabian Peninsula, is manifestly in the interest of the good of souls. 

But consensus breaks down quickly when discussions about confidentiality turn to how much the faithful will be told about misconduct in the Church.

Bishops in Rome and the U.S. concede that the faithful have a right to know that a scandalous situation is being handled. But, as the ongoing fallout from the disgrace of Theodore McCarrick shows, many Catholics have lost trust that the root causes of sexual scandal are addressed with, the laicization of a cardinal notwithstanding.

The faithful in the United States are still waiting for the results of a promised Vatican investigation into McCarrick’s rise to prominence despite decades of allegations. Following the dramatic statements of Archbishop Vigano, many remain concerned that whatever public report is released will be sanitized and omit reference to those ignored allegations or benefited from McCarrick’s patronage over the years.

Those concerns have been amplified by the case of former Wheeling-Charleston Bishop Michael Bransfield, who has been the subject of scandal and investigation since his resignation last year.

When the Vatican-appointed investigator Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore submitted his report on accusations of sexual and financial misconduct by Bransfield, it emerged that he omitted the names of other bishops and cardinals who had received large gifts of money from him over the years. Despite the possibility that these gifts might have played a part in Bransfield’s ability to act with impunity for so long, they were deemed a “distraction” by Lori.

This information only came to light when an unredacted version of the investigation’s findings was leaked to the Washington Post, and its publication led to an apology from Lori and a series of bishops returning the gifts to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

But examples like these notwithstanding, many would concede Piacenza’s point about the legitimate goods served by some measure of secrecy. Confidentiality is an essential part of any credible investigative process. Similarly, many would accept Piacenza’s point about the potentially permanent damage to a person’s reputation that can be done by circulating unproven allegations. Victims, too, have a clear right to confidentiality and protection from the public gaze while they seek justice.

But demands for greater transparency by the Church rarely focus on the details of individual acts of wrongdoing; more often they pertain to wider patterns of abuse of privilege and office, typified by McCarrick and Bransfield. Many Catholics are not, and will not be satisfied by knowing that the individual at the center of the scandal has been removed – they want to see proof that enablers and protectors have been dealt with.

Piacenza proposes that tensions between those seeking answers and those guarding information should be calmed and steered by the “Golden Rule” and a spirit of “fraternal charity.” The cardinal, like many in the hierarchy, is asking the faithful to trust. Following a dramatic loss of episcopal credibility in the face of scandal, most Catholics now want to verify.  

While Piacenza’s call for prudence and respect for confidentiality is not without merit, in the current climate many of the faithful will continue to insist that the salvation of souls demands a far greater “need to know” than perhaps he and the hierarchy in Rome are willing to concede.