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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Abuse in France & the Seal of Confession

It makes me weep that the ministry of mercy might be distorted into the “weapon of silence” against those who have had their innocence assailed and their bodies violated.   

Given the recent revelations of priestly abuse in France, some of the critics are targeting the sacrament of confession, notably the seal that binds a priest to silence under the pain of mortal sin and excommunication.  It is not a new question, “Must the priest remain silent when the sins confessed are also legally crimes?”  The Church’s response remains the same and cannot be compromised— the seal must be kept no matter what. The legal establishment in many if not most places respects this silence. Indeed, when ministers, lawyers, doctors and psychologists demanded confidentiality for their clients, they were given the lesser protection of professional secrecy. However, even in the United States there have been a number of challenges to the seal as well as threats to fine or jail clergy.

I am not sure what the evidence might be, but supposedly an independent commission in France found that in rare instances, the sacrament was used to conceal misdeeds.  It would seem to me that any who would advise going to confession to suppress the truth would make themselves accomplices in their sins.  I suppose that sexual criminals themselves might confess to a priest in order to silence his voice.  This can be true about many wrongs, from abuse of children and adults to infidelity and murder.  The priest confessor can hope that the penitent employs the sacrament for the proper reason and has a contrite heart; but few priests can read souls.  A priest might even seek to avoid hearing a person’s confession when the rumor mill would give him a heads up.  Nevertheless, most of the time, he must make himself available and he must give the penitent the benefit of a doubt.  Even if absolution were denied, he would still be required to keep silent.  The seal is absolute and means that he cannot divulge what he hears by word or by intimation.  The priest is aware of the many dirty secrets and the terrible darkness that infects souls, even those who seem observant and pious.       

“The report recommended that priests who heard of abuse during confession should be required to report evidence to state authorities.” Given that France is a secular country I suspect that the Church will soon know more than lawsuits, but that good priests will join the bad in jails.  The laws of God take precedence over those of men.  Remove the seal and the sacrament of penance would be destroyed. Everyone would be afraid what a priest might tell others.  The sacrament is literally understood as from the penitent’s mouth to God’s ears.  The priest is the instrument used by Christ to extend his saving ministry.  Jesus did not forgive souls and then turn them over to the authorities.  Now, having said that, priests should and likely already do urge penitents who confess abuse to turn themselves in for treatment and for justice.  Such may be understood as a sign of true contrition and wanting to change.  Forgiveness requires a disposition open to mercy.

It may also happen that a victim of abuse confesses what has happened in the sacrament of penance.  I would disagree with the authority in the article who suggested telling the penitent that this element is not part of the confession protected by the seal.  This constitutes a serious and impractical effort at demarcation that will likely get the priest excommunicated.  The seal must apply to every delicate detail the priest hears from the sign of the cross to the dismissal.  The priest should urge the person to report the abuse or to bring it up with another priest or person on the parish staff outside of confession.  Any instance of child abuse reported outside the sacrament (and is thus not under the seal) must be reported to the police and then to the local bishop.

The analogy of a person drowning is a false one.  If you find yourself in the water and cannot swim then you shout for help— in other words go public and to the police.  The parallel with confession would be like a drowning person whispering too low for anyone to hear.  See a priest outside the sacrament and he will likely go to the police with you, yes even if the culprit is another priest.  At least this is the case if he puts the youthful victim first (as he should).