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Quodlibet 10 : The seal of the confessional

Monday, May 12, 2008
Is it true to say that even if a priest knows through confession that he is clearly dealing with a serious criminal, such as a serial rapist, killer or child abuser, he may not under any circumstances reveal any information that may lead the police to question or even arrest that person?

In Quodlibet 1 we quoted the Church's Code of Canon Law, which says:

"The sacramental seal is inviolable. Accordingly, 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." (canon 983 §1)

So there is indeed no way that a priest can tell the police about a penitent's confession, no matter how serious the crime. In fact, if the priest were to do so, he would automatically be excommunicated (canon 1388 §1). The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that this secrecy "admits of no exceptions" (para. 1467) and that it "cannot be violated under any pretext" (para. 2490). Nor can the priest use information he learns from confession to the penitent's detriment (canon 984 §1).

The priest can, however, use what he has learned from confession to prevent harm, provided he doesn't betray the penitent or use the knowledge he has gained to the penitent's detriment. The classic example is the penitent who has confessed to poisoning the cruet of wine that the priest is about to use for Mass. In such a case the priest can safely dispose of the poisoned wine and use fresh wine instead, without danger of betraying the penitent or to the penitent's detriment.

Similarly, there might be ways that a priest could seek to avoid harm being done by someone who has confessed to being a murderer/rapist/abuser of children: for example, by taking special care not to leave vulnerable people alone with such a person. But the priest must always remember that the seal of confession is inviolable. He may never disclose or even hint at what has been confessed to him.

The priest hearing a confession has a vitally important responsibility to help the penitent towards healing from his sin. That would include helping the penitent realise the steps he needs to take to stop sinning and to avoid the "occasions of sin", those situations where the penitent might not be strong enough to resist temptation. With the sort of sins that the questioner mentions, one possible way for the penitent to avoid future occasions of sin and obtain the psychological help he may need would be to hand himself over to the police. It might be appropriate for the priest to suggest this. Although the priest cannot make it a condition for absolution (cf. canon 980), a truly contrite penitent will certainly want to take the steps necessary to avoid sin and the danger that others might come to harm in the future.

So while the answer to the question is that the priest may never reveal what has been confessed to him under any circumstances, he nevertheless has a crucial role in seeking to avoid harm being done.

The answer to this question is provided by Fr. Ben Earl, a canon lawyer, who teaches at Blackfriars, Oxford, and is the Provincal Bursar of the Province.

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