Skip to comments.Can Priests Ever Reveal What is Said in Confession [Ecumenical]
Posted on 12/04/2008 7:44:22 AM PST by NYer
Q: I know that a priest who hears confessions is forbidden to reveal their contents to others. But does that hold if someone admits in the confessional that he’s sexually molesting children? Isn’t the priest breaking the law if he fails to inform the authorities that he knows So-and-so is a child molester? –Patrick
A: This is an extremely good question, since it pits the inviolability of the seal of confession against the need to protect innocent children. Naturally the Church wants to defend both at the same time. So what happens when a priest has to choose between the two?
 Canon 983.1 tells us right up front that the sacramental seal is inviolable, and thus it is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion. That seems pretty strong already, but in fact the official Latin text of this canon is even stronger: the word nefas, which is translated here as “absolutely wrong,” actually has no direct equivalent in English. The term nefas refers to something that is so wickedly sinful, so abominably execrable, that it is simply impossible to do it! No matter what word English translators may use here, it falls short of the true sense of the Latin original.
Priests are all acutely aware that the penalty for violating the seal of the confessional is excommunication ( c. 1388.1), and they certainly do not take this lightly. As we saw in the  January 25, 2008 and  March 13, 2008 columns, there are a number of criteria that must all be in place for an excommunication to actually happen, one of which is that the perpetrator of the offense must be aware that the sanction of excommunication is attached to its commission ( c. 1323 n. 2). It would be virtually impossible for a priest to claim ignorance of the penalty if he were to repeat the contents of someone’s confession.
We Catholics are generally accustomed to the notion of the absolute secrecy which confessors must observe, but it may be surprising for some to learn that anyone else who happens to hear someone confessing his sins sacramentally is also obliged to observe the secrecy of the confessional ( c. 983.2). This pertains not only to an interpreter, who would naturally understand the content of the confession, but also to any person who is present in the room or who may even overhear the confession (or parts of it) accidentally. A nurse in a hospital ward, for example, might easily hear what a patient is saying to a priest in the course of making his confession in his hospital room. Or someone waiting in line for confession may inadvertently hear what the person ahead of him is telling the priest inside the confessional. All such persons are actually bound by canon law to keep what they hear to themselves. In fact, if they knowingly and willfully repeat another person’s confession, they themselves may be punished by a sanction, up to and including excommunication ( c. 1388.2).
Note that canon 983 refers to “betrayal of the penitent.” In other words, there may be occasions when a priest may mention a confession which he heard, but in a way that does not reveal the identity of the person who made it. Seminary professors, for example, can provide their moral theology students with examples of concrete ethical situations that they encountered in the course of hearing confessions. So long as there is no way for the listener to infer who it was who made this particular confession, the seal of the confessional remains intact. I myself had a wonderful, elderly theology professor years ago who routinely used to repeat confessions which he had heard along the way, as a means of providing us with real examples of difficult moral situations. But we had no way of knowing whether he had heard a particular confession last week or ten years ago, at his parish or across the country during the course of some retreat he had given. The prof also removed any specifics that would otherwise have made it possible for us to identify the penitent. In this way we could benefit from his years of experience in counseling without any violation of the sacramental seal.
So what does all this mean for the priest who hears the confession of a person who admits that he intends to kill somebody, or who sexually molests children and doesn’t indicate that he will stop? Priests are faced with such difficult situations more often than we laity might think! What are they permitted to do?
Firstly, of course, a confessor can latch onto the fact that if a would-be murderer or child molester has come to confession, he presumably regrets this action and wants to amend his life. The priest can talk this through with the penitent and try to get him to see what true amendment entails. At the very least, he can explain that he cannot impart absolution if the person does not firmly intend to stop committing the sort of sin that he has confessed. Depending on the situation, he may also be able to encourage the person to turn himself in to the authorities. The priest might even offer to accompany the penitent to the police station when he does this; but in such a case he would still be forbidden to repeat the contents of the person’s confession to others. If the penitent wanted him to do so, it would be necessary for him to repeat to the priest, outside the confessional, the things which he had told him in confession. In this way the priest could discuss the penitent’s situation, yet the seal of the confessional would remain inviolate.
If the penitent is not willing to cooperate, there are sometimes situations in which priests can find ways to help the authorities without revealing the content of a person’s confession. If a penitent has indicated, for example, that he fully intends to kill or harm Person X, a priest may be able to warn the police that Person X is in danger, but without fully explaining how he obtained this information. I personally know of a case in which police received a phone call from a priest, warning them that two teenaged sisters were in danger at that very moment. The police understood that the priest was not permitted to give them more specific information, and simply located the girls, notified their parents, and made sure they were protected. It is quite likely that some horrible crime was averted by this priest’s action, yet he did not violate the sacramental seal-in fact, nobody was really sure if he had learned the information in the confessional or in a confidential conversation outside of it. Once again, such collaboration between the authorities and the clergy happens more often than we may realize.
At the same time, however, a confessor is forbidden to go to the police with specific information about a penitent which he had learned during a confession. If, for example, a person confesses that he is the serial killer who is being sought by the authorities, and the priest recognizes his identity, he cannot contact the police and reveal it. This is true even if the person indicates that he intends to commit another crime. While he may strive to lead the criminal to turn himself in, or at least to change his plans, a priest is not allowed to take this information to the police of his own accord. No matter how difficult it may be, he must keep this to himself. We can incidentally see here one more excellent reason to pray for our priests, that they be given the strength to bear such weighty burdens!
As a (very general) rule, American civil law recognizes the right of clergymen to maintain secrecy about information divulged during a confidential conversation. If, however, our laws were to change dramatically and our priests were legally obliged to report the confessions of penitents who had admitted committing certain crimes, it is impossible to imagine that the Vatican would permit them to do this. The principle of the sacramental seal is, as we can see in c. 983.1 above, so strong and so absolute that it is, unfortunately, easy to imagine a priest being obliged to violate the laws of his local jurisdiction rather than betray the trust of someone who had confessed his sins to him. We can only hope that this situation never arises in our country!
A somewhat related situation did arise, however, in 1996 in a jail in Oregon. Unknown to the priest, who was hearing the confession of an inmate at a county jail,  law-enforcement officials were tape recording their conversation. They subsequently attempted to present the tape as evidence against the inmate, who was charged with murder. The Archdiocese of Portland immediately protested against this infringement on the secrecy of the confessional, and argued not only that the tape should not be used in court — which prosecutors eventually agreed to — but also that it be immediately destroyed.  The Vatican itself quickly became involved in this case and urged the destruction of the recording, insisting that even if it was never to be played again, such a tape should not continue to exist, as it was “reprehensible and unacceptable.”
We can see here just how seriously the Church takes the sacramental seal, since it unhesitatingly defends the secrecy of the confession of a person who may even have committed murder! While most Catholics will never confess such heinous actions, it is important for all of us to be sure that what a penitent has confessed remains between him, his confessor, and God Himself.
I thought that was what they talked about at the water cooler/sarc
and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
Any priest (assuming he is a Christian) would know under what circumstances to report something dreadful or possibly life threatening. OR better yet: TCOB himself.
BTW, there existed a Common Law Priest Penitent relationship, but it was not incorporated into US Law until the Special Prosecutor tried to subpoena President Nixon's Priest:
Conversation with Le Bon Deiu are to be kept confidential.
Well, in that case, wouldn't they withold absolution as well?
If you haven’t seen it yet, the Hitchcock movie “I Confess” deals with this topic and is great.
The secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for the confessor, and must under no circumstances be broken.Evidently the circumstance of a judge telling a cleric that he'll be fined $1k per diem for contempt is, well, not a circumstance, because when THAT happens, the Episcopal Church rolls over.
Of course. Absolution requires both sincere regret and the firm intention not to repeat the sin. These requirements would obviously exclude the offering of absolution to a predator who states his/her intention to claim futher victims.
“I’m sorry, my son, but I cannot grant you absolution. If you turn yourself in to the police now and face the judgment of the State, however, I will be more than happy to meet you afterwards and offer you the forgiveness of God.”
“Father, I can’t do that. I’m not turning myself in. I just wanted someone to know that the Martin girl’s body is in the basement of her parents’ house. Tonight, I’m going after her sister.”
“No, you’re not, son.”
Jerry: You iknow I talked to the rabbi outside. Understand you had a little talk with him too.
Elaine: Yeah, talked earlier.
Jerry: Yes I know, I know.
Elaine: He didn’t mention . . .
Jerry: Yes he did.
Elaine: He told you about our conversation?
Jerry: We had quite a little chat.
Elaine: He told you about . . .
Jerry: Yes, about how you’re very jealous of George. How you wished it was you who were getting married instead of him.
Elaine: He told you all that? How could he?
Jerry: It didn’t take much prodding either, I must say.
Elaine: Can he do that?
Jerry: He did it.
Elaine: But he’s a Rabbi! How can a Rabbi have such a big mouth?
Jerry: That’s what’s so fascinating.
I’m not an expert in Canon Law, but we were told in Catholic school by a priest that a priest cannot even acknowledge that a person went to him for confession. If he breaks the seal of the confessional, then the priest is not only defrocked, but also excommunicated. Like I said, I don’t know what Canon law actually says on this, but this is what the priest told us.
There is a new book out called “The Seal.” Haven’t read it yet, but I think it will be good. (By a priest I know.)
After the penitent law was codified I was vigorously prodded by a state’s attorney to appear before a Grand Jury regarding a confession made to me. While there was pressure the AG was not able to require me to testify.
So the DA put the squeeze on you?
No surprise really, the State always is against anything, no matter how it is based, that could offer a speed bump to their will.
In NC, we have a Priest/Penitent statute as well.
Click on my profile page for more guidelines pertaining to the Religion Forum.
I wasn’t trying to be antagonistic, just giving my opinion of what I thought about the article.
I have asked priests about this. It is one area whether young or old, liberal or “traditional” they seem to be in agreement. This is a sacred thing, the “seal of the confessional”. However, one priest told me what he could do is assign as penance that the person confess to the police and willingly accept his fair legal punishment. Or if there is not sincere repentance and intention to avoid sin, withhold absolution, perhaps advising the person to seek other help (such as counseling where the professional WOULD report to the police), or to confess first and then he will give absolution. The priest said it’s impossible to apply any formula, as 99 percent of people have the same old ordinary, usual sins and this does not come up, but in the rare occasion of a serious crime or potential for one, each situation is unique and he must be quite sensitive to how he could influence the person. This from a man a priest for over 60 years.
The movie “Mortal Sins” (Christopher Reeve as the priest) also centers on this theme. Very well done film, sadly almost forgotten. It doesn’t trash the Church, so it must be thrown down the memory hole.
I am trying to build a dvd library of Catholic themed and/or content films. Do you recall who produced this film and when? Thanks.
That should give you all the information necessary to run it down.
I've long wondered what would happen if such a case came to the SCOTUS, and they made a strict application of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..."
What is the Constitutional basis for any law that holds the conversation (call it a confession, if you will) between a religious figure and someone under his/her spiritual leadership any more "sacred" than something I tell one of my drinking buddies?
The Court ruled that when prosecuters attempted to force Nixon’s priest to reveal what the President had confessed to that a Priest Penetant relationship was of the same class as a Atty Client or Doctor Patient one.
I'm aware that it's been decided that way, but that was well over thirty years ago. My guess is that a liberal SCOTUS might decide differently.
The attorney-client and the doctor-patient exclusions come from the idea that no one who would be justifiably fearful of being charged with a crime would use the services of attorneys or doctors if the testimony was admissible. I would never expect a Court comprised of attorneys to do anything that would cut off business for the legal profession.
Of course, the argument could be made that people wouldn't confess things to their religious intermediaries to their deities if it were admissible in court, but I can see a day where a Supreme Court might just decide that it's not compelling enough of a reason. And as we have been perfectly willing to give up freedom for security in the case of the war on drugs and the war on alcohol, we will give up the quaint notion of priest-penitant privilege in the case of the pedophile who must be stopped in his tracks. There's even a Constitutional reason to do so, I cited it in my first post on this thread.