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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).

3 Responses

  1. Recent estimates are that 80 percent of Vatican clergy are homosexual.
    With number’s so high these abuses will never go away. Never

    FATHER JOE: I think that is grossly exaggerated. Such numbers are fanciful. Who supposedly is taking a written inventory? It is all made up.

  2. I think you make this question far too complicated. It’s not the job of the priest to tell someone to turn themselves into the police as a condition for absolution. You should know very well that it’s not your responsibility to figure out who is sincere. Any defects in the penitent’s attitude is made up for by the sacrament of penance itself. That is why it exists. If we could be perfect in our confession of guilt, we could not need the sacrament. This is basic catechism. The sacrament provides whatever grace is needed to make our confession perfect.

    Being sorry for ones sins does imply inviting whatever punishment the secular arm may dish out. We may be required to say a certain number of Our Fathers and Hail Marys, or some other thing within our capabilities. Turning ourselves over to the secular arm is not our duty.

    If or when to turn oneself in is a legal question in the secular system. It’s up to the police to investigate and arrest criminals. It’s up to the prosecutors to indict them. The relationship of law enforcement and the courts versus the average person is an adversarial one. The secular arm itself is corrupt and unjust, and often extremely brutal to the point of destroying people, and often works militantly against the Church. We live in a system that is not only not Christian, but is often anti-Christian. We owe it nothing extraordinary, just to obey the civil law. But that law does not say we must inform on ourselves at throw ourselves at the mercy of judges who may be corrupt and even anti-Catholic people.

    Ultimately God judges. Just please do what priests should do and keep within your proper boundaries, just as we lay people should do. We need priests who focus on the sacraments. Leave the criminal investigations to the cops. That’s their job, not yours.

    The Church should not be subject to and should not subject itself to the whims of secular power. We are in the world but not of it. The world is not our master. We have only one King, namely Jesus Christ. The world outside the Church follows Satan. We renounce Satan and all his works.

    I say all of this as a very law abiding person. People make fun of me because I’m the sort of person who waits for the red light to turn green even when there is no traffic. If I were a cop I would go after everyone who harms innocent people, especially children, with a vengeance. But I’m just a civilian lay person, so that’s not my role.

    Jesus, I trust in you. Hail Mary, full of grace. St. Michael the Archangel, Pray for Us. Amen.

    FATHER JOE:

    Again you show a deficiency in appreciation of what is the role of a priest. The post speaks about government intervention in trying to compel priests to tattle or to have criminals turn themselves in. But no one, not even you, can dictate to a priest confessor. Further, the priest does have an obligation to assess sincerity and the desire of a penitent to amend his or her life. That is why sometimes absolution is rightly withheld. The priest is a father, healer and judge within the sacrament of penance. I suppose you did not know this. Never in the history of the world had God given such authority to men as the power to forgive sins. The sacrament does not make up for defects in the penitent’s attitude. He or she must still be contrite and willing to change his life, do penance and maybe make restitution. Look again at your catechism. The grace of the sacrament comes with absolution. However, that absolution is dependent upon the person’s disposition. Most priests cannot read souls but over time we do become good a reading the signs of deception and manipulation. A person who is not sorry and/or who deliberately conceals mortal sins or who has no intention to change his evil ways may receive absolution but it becomes a sacrilege and he immediately returns to a state of mortal sin. There is thus an invalidation of both actual and salvific grace.

    You write, “Being sorry for ones sins does imply inviting whatever punishment the secular arm may dish out.” Well, yes and no. If the punishment is regarded by the faith as inherently unjust the confessor may ask for another form of reparation. For instance, recourse might be in assisting a family that has lost its breadwinner through a violent act. Another might be sending anonymous cash to a store where something was stolen. As for amendment of life, it may include the direct command to totally avoid a person with whom the penitent has committed adultery. It is often more than a penance to say one Our Father and ten Hail Marys.

  3. How about if the penitent confesses his/her plan to commit a serious crime, eg, child abuse, murder, etc, Is the priest obliged to (perhaps stop the confession and) report that to his superiors or the authorities?

    FATHER JOE: The seal is still absolute. He can say nothing.

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