The secular push to get priests to break the seal

One of the least appreciated aspects of the priesthood is the priest’s absolute commitment to keeping Sacred and inviolable the seal of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. 

What this means is that under no circumstances whatsoever will a priest divulge what a particular person told him in Confession: even if he’s threatened with imprisonment, torture or death; even if others are about to scourge his mother; even if someone is destroying his reputation by unjustly accusing him of saying or doing nefarious things in the Confessional or of having committed the very crime that the penitent himself confessed; even if the only thing a penitent has confessed is impatience at a red light. 

The Sacramental seal is something that makes even the most humanly inadequate, faint-hearted, easily intimidated, conflict adverse and pusillanimous priest ready for heroism. I often ask Catholics with whom I speak about the Sacrament of Penance: Do you realize that every priest is ready to die for you, to protect what you say through him to God? Most, young and old, have never really thought about it. 

Many priests have in fact died in protecting the Seal of Confession. St. John Nepomuk was drowned in 14th-century Prague by King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia for not divulging what Queen Johanna had confessed. St. Mateo Correa Magallanes was killed in 1927 in Mexico for refusing to tell General Eulogio Ortiz what condemned prisoners had confessed to him. Blessed Felipe Císcar Puig and Blessed Fernando Olmedo Reguera were martyred in Valencia and Madrid, respectively, during the Spanish Civil War for the same reason of not repeating what prisoners had confessed to them. 

As these examples show, tyrants and totalitarians have a particular hatred for the Seal of Confession and have tried to break this absolute commitment priests have made to God and to their penitents. They won’t tolerate a greater allegiance than to them and their dictates. Like the ancient Roman emperors sought to break young Christian virgins by threatening to expose them to brothels if they didn’t capitulate to their whims, so still today some leaders and governments try to break priests’ fidelity by forcing them to violate the confessional seal. 

The front line for this assault is happening in Australia, where three territories (Tasmania, South Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory) have passed legislation to force priests to break the Seal of Confession when someone confesses to them abusing a minor. The Church’s absolute opposition and resistance to this egregious violation of religious freedom is being used by those who oppose the Church as “proof” that the Church is really more concerned about its “rituals” than about abused children, that the Church and her priests care more about protecting abusers than victims. 

The logic is akin to castigating defense attorneys for not betraying their clients and working with prosecutors or to accusing doctors of not being opposed to crime if they operate and try to save the lives of criminals. It’s against the calling of attorneys and physicians to do that, in the same way that it is totally against the vocation of priests to betray penitents — which is one of the reasons why the penalty under Church law for a priest’s doing so is automatic excommunication. 

Such attacks on the Seal of Confession are also totally impractical. Even if such laws are well-intentioned, they won’t make children any safer. 

First, it’s hard to imagine any abuser coming to confess if the person knew that the priest was ultimately just a state informant who would betray their confidence. 

Second, Confessions are often anonymous, not only behind screens in confessionals but also with penitents coming to priests who do not know them. In such circumstances, would a priest be expected, as soon as someone mentions some form of abuse of a minor, to restrain the penitent until the police arrive? 

Third, abusers are notoriously secretive. If one actually comes to a priest to deal with the guilt of what he or she has done, that’s an opportunity for priests to help the person get help and do reparation, including turning oneself in. Sometimes that might be one of the few chances to try to stop the abuser before others are hurt. 

Finally, priests just simply won’t break the seal, even under threat of fine, imprisonment, or execution. 

None of this seems to matter in leaders in these three Australian territories. Because of the sins of some abusive priests, there is now a full-scale assault on every priest’s Sacred duties with regard to Confession, which is, basically, a direct, punitive attack on the priesthood and the Church itself. Even though a priest will not break the seal, it is a form of moral waterboarding to threaten him with fines, imprisonment or worse for not doing so. 

The only way the law will be able to be enforced, moreover, will be through entrapping priests, in one of two ways: first, by sending in faux penitents to see what the priest will do when abuse is falsely confessed, since it’s unthinkable that a real abuser would ever report a priest for not betraying him; second, by interrogating Catholic abusers as to whether they ever confessed their sins to a priest, perhaps in exchange for some leniency. Any priest named would be incapable of defending himself because of the seal, whether the abuser actually confessed the sin of abuse to him or not. 

In the United States, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have enacted statues protecting confessional privilege or some communication between clergy and faithful, like similar privileges granted to the communication between spouses and between attorneys and clients. But there have still been attacks on the privilege. In Oregon, in 1996, prison officials surreptitiously recorded inmate Conan Wayne Hale’s confession to Father Timothy Mockaitis and sought unsuccessfully to use it in court. In Louisiana, Rebecca Mayeux sued Father Jeffrey Bayhi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge for Bayhi’s allegedly not reporting to authorities what Mayeux says she had said to him in Confession in 2008, that she was being abused by an elderly parishioner. Mayeux was suing under the state’s mandatory reporter law that has language “notwithstanding any claim of privileged communications,” including presumably confessional privilege. Ultimately the Louisiana State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Seal of Confession. 

There’s no reason not to think, however, that mandatory reporting laws for sexual abuse, like those in Australia, Louisiana and elsewhere will not continue to be used to try to undermine the Seal of Confession. Because of the priests’ inviolable adherence to the seal, such attacks would be at first purely symbolic: a way for a state to assert that the laws of God and the Church must be subject to the laws of the land. They could also prove, however, to be a means to try to damage the Church, by prosecuting faithful priests as criminals for protecting whatever any penitent tells him, and by giving the faithful a reason not to frequent the Sacrament, under the hysteria that priests might somehow share what they say with third parties. 

One of the goods that we can pray God will bring out of the assault on the seal of the Sacrament is that people will grow in greater awareness and esteem of what every priest will die for. We can also pray that Catholics will ask themselves: If a priest loves them enough to go to jail and die for them and to protect what they confess to God, might they take the Sacrament more seriously and receive it more frequently? 

Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.


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