A Bishop and a Priest propose breaking the Seal of the Confessional

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

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.

More than one priest-confessor has suffered martyrdom, rather than break the seal of the confessional.

The Fourth Lateran Council condemned priests who break the seal of the confessional.

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.

Fr. Z. has written on this topic repeatedly here.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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4 Responses to A Bishop and a Priest propose breaking the Seal of the Confessional

  1. John Platts says:

    In addition, a priest or bishop who hears an admission of a crime committed by a penitent in the Sacrament of Reconciliation should never disclose anything regarding that crime that was heard in the confessional because there is the possibility that the penitent had falsely admitted that he or she committed a crime and also because the priest or bishop who heard the confession cannot be absolutely certain that the penitent is telling the truth.

    • Ron Conte says:

      No, that is not an additional reason. Outside the confessional, if an admission of a grave crime occurred, the person should report it despite the possibility that the admission was false. The police can investigate and determine if the admission was true or not. So the possibility of a false confession (which seems very unlikely to me) does not affect the situation.

      The reason for keeping the Seal is the nature of the Sacrament as a private communication with God, through the priest, to obtain sacramental forgiveness, and the reasonably anticipated consequence (of a violation of the seal) that some persons might not confess grave sins due to fear that the seal would also be violated in their case.

  2. Francisco says:

    I have a related question, it’s about keeping a secret: Jesus Christ in the Gospels, and the Virgin Mary in some apparitions have told people not to tell some things or to keep a secret to some people.

    You’ have said: “In some circumstances,
    a human person has a moral obligation not to reveal a truth.”

    So this concerns out of the Sacrament of Confession and to any lay person.

    Now, if someone (A) tells something private to another person (B) and tells (B) to keep it a secret; how much or until what extent is person (B) morally obliged to keep that secret? – this depends of the circumstances? (since you said “in some circumstances”).

    Also, what about if then (B) tells this secret to person (C) and tells (C) to keep it as a secret because (A) have said so – the way I see it in this case is that (B) has broken the secret even if (C) keeps it, but the morality of not have kept that secret will also depend on the intention and circumstances?

    • Ron Conte says:

      The fact that someone tells you to keep something secret does not necessarily obligate you. But you must take their reasonable wishes into consideration, out of love of neighbor. I can’t tell you how to evaluate the circumstances, since we are not speaking of any particular case. As always, the intention must be good and the reasonably anticipated bad consequences must not outweigh the good consequences.

      If B tells the secret to C, and asks C to keep it as a secret, that might be moral, as when a physician keeps something confidential, but decides to tell a colleague in order to get his advice on the case. So unless an act is intrinsically evil, it depends on the intention and circumstances.

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