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 “Am I Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part I,” and “Is She Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part II,” 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.