One of the least appreciated aspects of the priesthood is the priest’s absolute commitment to keeping sacred and inviolable the seal of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
What this means is that under no circumstances whatsoever will a priest divulge what a particular person told him in Confession. Even if he’s threatened with imprisonment, torture or death. Even if others are about to scourge his mother. Even if someone is destroying his reputation by unjustly accusing him of doing nefarious things in the Confessional or of having committed the very crime that the penitent himself confessed. Even if the only thing a penitent has confessed is impatience at a red light.
The sacramental seal is something that makes even the most humanly inadequate, faint-hearted, easily intimidated, conflict adverse and pusillanimous priest ready for heroism. I often ask Catholics with whom I speak about the Sacrament of Penance: Do you realize that every priest is ready to die for you, to protect what you say through him to God? Most, young and old, have never really thought about it.
Many priests have in fact died in protecting the seal of Confession.
The most famous example is Saint John Nepomuk, confessor to Queen Johanna, wife of Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia, in the late 14th Century. The paranoid king thought his wife was unfaithful to him and demanded that Father John tell him what his wife confessed. He refused. The King escalated the threats of torture. None worked. Finally he ordered that Father John be bound, thrown off the Charles Bridge in Prague, and drowned.
Saint Mateo Correa Magallanes was killed in 1927 in Mexico for refusing to tell General Eulogio Ortiz what condemned prisoners had confessed. After he rejected the General’s order to break the seal, Ortiz put a gun to the side of Father Correa’s head. When the priest responded, “You can do that, but a priest has to guard the seal of confession. I am ready to die,” Ortiz ordered that he be brought to the outskirts of Durango and shot.
During the Spanish Civil War, two priests died protecting the seal. Blessed Felipe Císcar Puig heard the confession of a Franciscan friar about to be executed by firing squad in Valencia in 1936. Soldiers demanded he divulge what the friar had told him. Fr. Císcar refused saying, “Do what you want, but I will not reveal the confession. I would die before that.” They were executed together. In the same year, Blessed Fernando Olmedo Reguera, who was ministering to those imprisoned with him in Madrid, was pressured and tortured into revealing what they had said. He refused and was martyred.
As these examples show, tyrants and totalitarians have a particular hatred for the seal of Confession and have tried to break this absolute commitment priests have made to God and to their penitents. They won’t tolerate a greater allegiance than to them and their dictates. Like the ancient Roman emperors used to try to break young Christian virgins by threatening to expose them to brothels if they didn’t capitulate to their whims, so still today some leaders and governments try to break priests’ fidelity by forcing them to violate the confessional seal.
The front line for this assault is happening in Australia, where three territories (Tasmania, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory) have passed legislation to force priests to break the seal of confession when someone confesses to them the sexual abuse of a minor. The Church’s absolute opposition and resistance to this egregious violation of religious freedom is being used by those who oppose the Church as “proof” that the Church is really more concerned about its “rituals” than about abused children, that she cares more about protecting abusers than victims.
The logic is akin to castigating defense attorneys for not betraying their clients and working with prosecutors or to doctors of not being opposed to crime if they operate on rather than execute criminals. It’s against the calling of attorneys and physicians to do that, in the same way that it is totally against the vocation of priests to betray penitents — which is one of the reasons why the penalty under Church law for a priest’s doing so is automatic excommunication.
Such attacks on the seal of confession are also totally impractical. Even if such laws are well-intentioned, they won’t make children any safer.
First, it’s hard to imagine any abuser — or anyone guilty of a serious crime for that matter — coming to confess to a priest if the person knew that the priest was de facto just a state informant who would betray his confidence.
Second, confessions are often anonymous, not only behind screens in confessionals but also with penitents coming to priests who do not know them. In such circumstances, would a priest be expected, as soon as someone mentions some form of abuse of a minor, to restrain the unknown penitent until the police arrive?
Third, abusers are notoriously secretive. If one actually comes to a priest to deal with the guilt of what he or she has done, that’s an opportunity for priests to help the person get help and do reparation, including turning oneself in, as priests seek to do whenever serious criminals come to confession. Sometimes that might be one of the few chances to try to stop the abuser before others are hurt.
Finally, priests just simply won’t break the seal, even under threat of fine, imprisonment or execution.
But none of this seems to matter in leaders in these three Australian territories. Because of the sins of some abusive priests — and the clear failure of some Church leaders to eradicate sexual abuse, care for victims and protect children as everyone would rightfully expect — there is now a full-scale punitive assault on every priest’s sacred duties with regard to confession, which is, basically, a direct attack on the priesthood and the Church itself. Even though a priest will not break the seal, it is a form of moral waterboarding to threaten him with fines, imprisonment or worse for not doing so. Do people really want to see faithful priests jailed for protecting the seal of confession because, frankly, some abusive priests, thanks to statutes of limitations, remain free?
The only way the law will be able to be enforced, moreover, will be through entrapping priests, in one of two ways: first, by sending in faux penitents to see what the priest will do when abuse is falsely confessed, since it’s unthinkable that a real abuser would ever report a priest for keeping the seal and not betraying him; second, by interrogating Catholic abusers as to whether they ever confessed their sins to a priest, perhaps in exchange for some leniency. Any priest named would be incapable of defending himself because of the seal, even if he had begged the abuser to turn himself in or refused him absolution.
In the United States, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have enacted statues protecting confessional privilege or some communication between clergy and faithful, like similar privileges granted to the communication between spouses and between attorneys and clients. But there have still been attacks on the privilege. In Oregon, in 1996, prison officials surreptitiously recorded inmate Conan Wayne Hale’s confession to Father Timothy Mockaitis and sought unsuccessfully to use it in court. In Louisiana, Rebecca Mayeux sued Father Jeffrey Bayhi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge for Bayhi’s allegedly not reporting to authorities what Mayeux says she had said to him in confession in 2008, that she was being abused by an elderly parishioner. Mayeux was suing under the State’s mandatory reporter law that has language “notwithstanding any claim of privileged communications,” including presumably confessional privilege. Ultimately the Louisiana State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the seal of confession.
There’s no reason not to think, however, that mandatory reporting laws for sexual abuse, like those in Australia, Louisiana and elsewhere will not continue to be used to try to undermine the seal of Confession. Because of the priests’ inviolable adherence to the seal, such attacks would be at first purely symbolic: a way for a state to assert that the laws of God and the Church must be subject to the laws of the land. They could also prove, however, to be a means to try to damage the Church, by prosecuting faithful priests as criminals for protecting whatever any penitent tells him, and by giving the faithful who a reason not to frequent the Sacrament, under the hysteria that priests might somehow share what they say with third parties.
These laws, which would not have been imagined in previous generations in free societies, are being proposed and implemented now not merely as ill-thought reactions to the sexual abuse crisis but because many in our increasingly secularized society, including many Catholics, no longer have an appreciation for sacred communication in general and for the Sacrament of Penance in particular.
One of the goods that we can pray God will bring out of the assault on the seal of the Sacrament is that people will grow in greater awareness and esteem of what every priest will die for. We can also pray that Catholics will ask themselves: If a priest loves them enough to go to jail and die for them and to protect what they confess to God, might they take the Sacrament more seriously and receive it more frequently?