The Seal of the Confessional Is Under Attack in California
In response to pending bill requiring Catholic priests to report child sex abuse learned about through the sacrament, priests insist on upholding sacred trust.
California state Sen. Jerry Hill introduced a bill to the state Legislature on Feb. 20 that would require Catholic priests to report child sex abuse learned about in the confessional. The clergy and more than 40 other professions are already mandatory reporters there, but crimes disclosed during confession have been exempt. According to Hill, “The exemption for clergy only protects the abuser and places children at further risk.” The bill is currently awaiting a hearing.
Although a similar law was passed in South Australia last October, bishops and priests there have publicly vowed never to break the seal of the confessional. Quoting canon law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “... It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason. A priest, therefore, cannot break the seal to save his own life, to protect his good name, to refute a false accusation, to save the life of another, to aid the course of justice (like reporting a crime), or to avert a public calamity” (2490). Automatic excommunication is incurred on any priest breaking that seal.
Adding fuel to the fire, Father James E. Connell of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, a canon lawyer and advocate for victims/survivors of sexual abuse, wrote in a recent commentary that it is time to modify the Church’s seal of the confessional for abuse of minors. He acknowledged that the law against a priest revealing sins told in confession can be found at least by the 12th century but said that public penances were once imposed for grave sins. According to him, that proves that the seal of the confessional was not always Church law.
But Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti, author, expert on priestly spirituality and wellness issues, and research associate professor at The Catholic University of America, told the Register: “Violating the sacred protection of people’s consciences, which is what this law attempts to do, is a most serious infringement upon people’s religious freedom. It would be a dangerous precedent.”
Msgr. Rossetti also pointed out that reporting laws are also not universal. For instance, the attorney-client privilege remains protected. And neither would passing such a law actually protect children, he said, because molesters do not confess that sin. “After 35 years as a priest, I have never heard a confession of anyone molesting a minor,” he said. Nor has he ever heard of someone who has. “There is an incredible amount of denial among child molesters,” he said. “They practically never admit their abusive behavior.”
According to him, seminarians are trained that if someone actually does confess molesting a minor, to encourage that person to stop and get psychological help, and also to surrender to authorities as a matter of justice and making reparation.
Father Greg Luger of the Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota, strongly disagrees with the claim that since people once did public penance, it proves their sins were not always kept secret. “Public penance should not be confused with public confession,” he said. “Although the Catechism does say that public penances were imposed, it doesn’t say that the priest went around telling everyone the precise sins of the penitent. The latter was explicitly condemned by Pope Leo the Great.”
“It also needs to be said that [claiming public penances proves sins were made public] espouses the same intellectual laziness, or disingenuousness, often found in dissident theologians,” Father Luger said. “They like to cherry-pick quotes and twist them to fit their own narratives.”
If this bill passes, he said, there could be eternal consequences. “The penitent goes to the priest to receive God's mercy,” Father Luger said. “Without the seal, droves of people would refuse to go to confession at all, and hence a vital part of priestly ministry (one that’s essential to the salvation of souls) is lost.”
The bill is “counterproductive,” according to Father Roger Landry, an author, national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA, and a priest in the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, as well as a regular Register contributor. “No abuser, not to mention others guilty of serious crimes, would come to confession if he knew that the confessor was basically a state informant who would betray his confidence,” he said.
“In an age where there is rampant mistrust due to high-tech surveillance techniques, the hacking of computers and phones, tabloid journalists and paparazzi photographers, knowing that there is someone with whom one can talk about one’s most shameful secrets is an enormous relief,” Father Landry said. “I’ve seen this not only among prisoners, who are ordinarily so grateful to be able to have a real conversation about God, sin and conversion, but also among so many ordinary people who need forgiveness and guidance because of mistakes they’ve made; mortified that they might become public.”
And if a penitent went behind the screen, Father Landry asks what would the expectation be for the priest — restrain him, lock him in, or hit an alarm to notify the police? “The only way it could ever be enforced would be by trying to entrap priests by sending in faux penitents confessing to abuse to see what the priest would do,” he said, “or interrogating Catholic abusers as to whether they ever confessed their sins to a priest perhaps in exchange for a plea deal.” In such cases, he pointed out that because of the seal of confession, a priest would not be able to defend himself against false claims so this could be used against him.
The Seal Offers Freedom
According to Colin Donovan, vice president for theology at EWTN, “Christ, in instituting the sacrament on Easter night (John 20:19-23), gave the apostles authority to forgive sins, but also the authority to refuse absolution,” he said. It was given to us to be a tribunal in which the sinner feels free to reveal their most profound sins for the sake of spiritual healing, he explained.
“It benefits souls, and society, precisely by the freedom it provides the penitent, eliciting self-knowledge that even psychiatry recognizes,” Donovan said. “Catholics would add that the grace of the sacrament helps them to effect the very changes that their self-revelation suggests are necessary.”
Donovan warned that if the seal of the confessional is no longer protected by law, there would be no reason for any limits to break the seal for other reasons, so it is really a violation of the First Amendment. “As far as Catholics are concerned,” he said, “it might result in the lessening of the use of confession by the more scrupulous for fear of discovery. However, I suspect it will do absolutely nothing to catch pedophiles or other abusers. Why would any such troubled person seek spiritual help knowing that the priest might succumb to legal pressure and reveal it?”
Given that logic, Donovan said he suspects there is a greater purpose at work: the general destruction of the Church. “That, of course, won’t happen,” he said. “We will see martyrs first: whether going to prison, or in some jurisdictions in the world, to death.”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.
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