This news article from Australia is very disturbing: Priest used confession to admit abuse. A Bishop and priest from an Australian diocese have publicly stated that they might break the seal of the confessional. The secular justice system in their locality is investigating child abuse by priests. The commission found out from a priest-penitent that he confessed the sin of child abuse in confession to another priest.
The Seal of the Confessional is absolute. It may never be broken, regardless of the sin or crime. If the confessor informs the police, or Church authorities, or anyone else, he has sinned gravely and is automatically excommunicated. Breaking the seal of the confessional is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. In some circumstances, a human person has a moral obligation not to reveal a truth. A priest must never break the seal of the confessional, since this act is directly contrary to the essential nature of the Sacrament: a private admission of sins to Jesus Christ, as represented by the confessor. And every intrinsically evil act is immoral regardless of intention or circumstances.
In the circumstance where the penitent confesses to abusing a child, the confessor (priest or bishop) cannot disclose this sin to the police, nor to anyone. If the confessor is concerned about further harm to children, he can pray and fast for help from God. If he has no faith in prayer and fasting, then he should resign from the priesthood or the episcopate. Disclosing the contents of any confession is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. The good intention to protect children or to bring a criminal to justice, and the circumstance of possible further harm to children does not justify the breaking of the seal. Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, by the very nature of the act, no matter how good the intention, no matter how grave the circumstance.
Can the confessor withhold absolution, and then disclose the sin on the grounds that no sacramental absolution took place? No, he cannot. First, the confessor cannot withhold absolution, if the penitent expresses contrition. An openly unrepentant “penitent” should not be given absolution, as the Sacrament requires at least imperfect contrition for validity. Otherwise, withholding absolution on any condition is a grave sin. The confessor absolutely may not say to the penitent, “Promise to admit your crime to the police, or I will withhold absolution.”
Second, even if absolution is not granted for some reason, the disclosure took place in the context of an attempted confession and therefore that disclose is protected by the seal of the confessional. The seal protects every attempted confession, valid or invalid, licit or illicit, complete or incomplete.
A priest who deliberately and directly breaks the seal of the confessional commits an intrinsically evil grave sin and is automatically excommunicated. A bishop who does the same is just as guilty and just as excommunicated.
The Ballarat Diocese
Bishop Paul Bird reportedly said, about the confession of child abuse by a priest: “Basically it lacks honesty, it lacks sincerity, because confession is meant to be a conversion from offending, from doing wrong, to taking up a new way of life.” He also said: “If it’s such a serious matter as a crime, to treat it as though it was something that one could confess, I think to me that is simply a shell of a ritual, it has no substance.”
The Bishop said he would not give the penitent absolution, and that he could consider telling the authorities. His excuse: “What I’m trying to balance there is the tradition or the value of confidentiality, which in regard to the confessional for the church’s history has been treated as absolute.”
The news report states: “Father Adrian McInerney, the parish priest at St Alipius Parish in Ballarat East, has told the commission he has not heard a confession of a crime but if he did he would be compelled to go to police.”
I’m appalled by the above quoted comments of a Bishop and a priest. The claim that the confession of any sin “lacks honesty” or “lacks sincerity” is surprising because it is not the role of the confessor to judge the penitent. Unless a penitent openly expresses an utter lack of even imperfect contrition, the confessor should grant absolution. The confessional is not a place to be judged, but rather a place to obtain the forgiveness of Christ. This Bishop is speaking as if the Sacrament of Confession had nothing to do with God, and as if it were subservient to any and all human laws.
The Bishop’s assertion that a serious crime cannot be confessed, because it would make the Sacrament a “shell of a ritual” is an heretical claim. Regardless of whether a sin is also a grave crime, every sin can be confessed in the confessional, and every sin can be forgiven in the confessional. His assertion that he himself would deny absolution would be a grave sin if he did deny absolution, and the assertion itself is the grave sin of scandal. Some repentant sinners in his diocese might not confess grave sins, if these are also crimes, out of fear that the priest would act as the Bishop suggests and not only refuse absolution, but also break the seal.
The Bishop’s excuse is that he is trying to balance “the value of confidentiality”. But as he himself states, the tradition of the Church has always treated the seal as absolute. There is nothing to be balanced. His reference to the seal of the confessional as mere “confidentiality” contradicts Church tradition on that very subject.
Canon Law forbids breaking the Seal: 983 §1. “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. 984 §1. “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.”
In the U.S., Cardinal McCarrick has previously said that he would oppose any law requiring priests to break the seal of the confessional, and would tell priests to disobey the law, and would go to jail himself, rather than obey the law.
Over at Catholic Exchange.com, author Cathy Caridi, J.C.L., speaks in support of keeping the seal of the confessional inviolate.
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