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Clarifying confessional seal

SYDNEY (SE): Five archbishops in Australia told a hearing at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on February 24 that they would seek a clarification from the Vatican as to whether the seal of the confessional extends beyond the confession of sin to cover a person who tells of being the victim of a crime.

The bishops were being questioned on a hypothetical case of a young girl telling a priest in the confessional that she was being sexually abused.

Four of them stated that they believed that anything said in confession is subject to the strictest confidentially, but Archbishop Philip Wilson, from Adelaide, raised questions when he stated that from his study, he believes that the seal may only relate to sins that are being confessed.

He said that since the young girl was not confessing a sin, but giving information about a particular situation, there may be more leeway than previously thought.

The bishops then told the commission that the matter would be taken up by the Australian Bishops’ Conference and that a clarification from the Vatican would be sought on the matter.

The question raises a serious dilemma, as it has been at the forefront of a high level political clash in Ireland with the prime minister, Enda Kenny, which culminated with his government withdrawing its ambassador from the Vatican.

While Kenny cited economic reasons at the time, he was widely reported as threatening legislation to make reporting of sexual abuse of minors a mandatory act, even if the information was gleaned under the seal of confession.

Although the Irish situation is somewhat different from what Archbishop Wilson is suggesting, its implications need to be understood clearly.

However, a case far more akin to the Australian archbishop’s suggestion is that of a Father Jeff Bayhi, from the diocese of Baton-Rouge in the United States of America (US).

On 28 October 2011, the Supreme Court of Louisiana ruled that he could not be instructed to reveal anything he heard under the seal of confession, as a lower court had done after the penitent requested him to recount to the court what she had told him as a 14-year-old.

The lower court argued that the seal does not apply if the penitent waives the right to confidentiality.

But even in exonerating Father Bayhi’s stance, the Supreme Court did not transgress into the realm of canon law, saying only that he was not under obligation in state law to reveal what he had heard.

It did not comment on the commonly held understanding of the seal of confession in the Church.

However, it did honour his right to keep the confidentiality of the confession box according to the law of the Church and his own judgement.

The Supreme Court of the US had declined to hear the case.

The judgement of the Louisiana Supreme Court is closer to what Archbishop Wilson is suggesting than the Irish scenario, as he is not talking about obligation or mandatory reporting, but only saying there may be more leeway to act than previously thought.

The bishops told the commission in Sydney that they would take up the matter at their next gathering and refer it to the Vatican for clarification.

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