A Priest, a Confession, a Court

Father Timothy Mockaitis, who was at the center of a controversy in which prosecutors recorded a sacramental confession of a homicide suspect, has written a book about the experience.

Father Timothy Mockaitis knows full well that hearing confessions is one of the most important things about being a priest.

This week begins the Year of the Priest, 150 years after the death of St. John Vianney, who was known to spend hours on end in the confessional.

But the seal of the confessional — the absolute confidentiality of the sacrament — was driven home to Father Mockaitis when a confession he heard of a murder suspect was surreptitiously tape-recorded. A legal battle ensued, with a court declaring that the recording had been done illegally. The tape has never been destroyed.

Father Mockaitis, who was ordained in 1978 and is a priest in the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., was featured in a Time magazine article on religious freedom relating to the events.

He spoke about the ordeal, described in his book, The Seal: A Priest’s Story, with Register correspondent Nicole Callahan.

The Seal: A Priest’s Story focuses on an unprecedented breach of the seal of the confessional that gained national attention in 1996. How did the story begin?

It began with a benign pastoral visit to a jailed inmate in May 1996. At the time, I was pastor of St. Paul’s in Eugene, Ore., and one of my parishioners, who was involved in prison ministry, had asked me to be available to jailed inmates, should they ask to talk with a priest or go to confession.

I had been going to the Lane County Jail once or twice a month for about nine months, whenever I was called, and on May 22, I was asked if I would meet with a young man named Conan Wayne Hale. At the time he was being held, he was a suspect in a triple homicide, though he had not been charged. I was told that he’d asked for a priest to hear his confession.

Ten days after my meeting with Mr. Hale, a reporter called to ask me about our meeting. He had learned of a search warrant issued to listen to a tape recording of the confession. I had no idea that my conversation with Mr. Hale had been taped; this was the first I’d heard of it. I immediately felt a sense of shock and deep violation — violation of myself, and the penitent most of all.

Not only was the seal of the confessional not respected, the government had interfered with Mr. Hale’s right to the free expression of his religion. Jailed inmates have a low expectation of privacy, but they still have some rights that cannot be violated.

As Cardinal Francis George wrote in the book’s foreword, this is “a sharp reminder that we cannot take religious freedom for granted or stand aside when it is under duress, if this freedom is to continue to be a valued dimension of the life of our country.”

That is why the Church fought so hard, from the very beginning, to have this illegally and unethically acquired tape destroyed, and this is why the story has to be told now.

Why is the seal of confession so important to the sacrament?

The seal of confession is the heart, the integrity of the sacrament. It protects the penitent and provides, more than anything else, a guarantee of trust — so that if you come to speak with a priest, you come first out of faith, believing that God forgives your sin; and you also come with a sense of freedom, knowing you can unburden your soul before Him.

Confidentiality is essential to the penitent’s implicit trust that the sin remains between him and God, through the seal kept by the priest who acts in persona Christi. The beauty of the sacrament is this sense of trust, the gift of freedom it provides, and the knowledge of healing for the penitent who has embraced the call to conversion.

Once you learned of the existence of the taped confession, you began to argue, alongside Church representatives, for its destruction. Meetings and legal battles continued for months, all the way to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. How were you affected by these events?

There was a deep sense of violation, and, at first, what I wrestled with most was a great sense of guilt — I felt that this whole thing was my fault. Even 12 years later, while the shock has worn off, I still feel a deep need for caution and vigilance. People of faith should not be fearful, but we must be watchful — because our First Amendment rights and our religious liberties are constantly under scrutiny.

And, of course, I continue to be troubled by the fact that the tape still exists, even though the 9th Circuit Court decision made it clear that it had been obtained illegally and had no right to exist. The judge stopped short of ordering the district attorney to destroy the tape. While the state did promise that it would be destroyed after Conan Hale’s trial, to this day it remains in a drawer in the Lane County sheriff’s office. The violation of the seal continues as long as the tape exists.

What can we do, as Catholic Americans, to help ensure that our religious liberties are protected?

Pay attention, and speak out when our rights are infringed upon. One of the things that the Vatican was incredulous about was that this happened in a country that boasts about its protection of religious freedom. I think the district attorney’s office taped Mr. Hale’s confession because they knew about the confidential nature of the sacrament and hoped he would be more forthcoming with a priest.

They took advantage of the opportunity to listen in on his confession, even though they should have recognized that as an evil act.

Was this an isolated case in our country, or do you think there will be future threats to the seal of confession?

The 9th Circuit ruling did protect the seal of the sacrament, and I think that outcome was a triumph for the Church and for religious freedom. It proves the strength of our Constitution.

A few years ago, New Hampshire and a handful of other states did introduce legislation that would have allowed the government, in certain cases, to obtain information that may have come to priests during the sacrament of confession. These bills never became law, but they are a reminder that the relationship between church and state has been tense in the past, and our vigilance is needed to ensure our religious liberties are protected.

What prompted you to write your story now?

I wanted this story to serve as a warning as well as a story of hope. In the end, the position of the Church was vindicated, and that should give us a sense of security and hope. But it is one more example of an attempt by individuals to chip away at our religious freedom. There was a total dismissal of the rights of the Church and the penitent. And so there is a strong, clear ecumenical spirit to this story. It’s not just a book for Catholics, but for all people who care about the freedom of religion and the right to privacy.

I also believe this story shows the power of forgiveness in someone’s life. I’ve visited Conan Hale and still correspond with him occasionally. I believe that he has truly changed, due in part to the power of forgiveness.

Nicole Callahan writes from

Durham, North Carolina.