CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 16 December 2017

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Priest prosecuted for silence over disputed confession

BRUSSELS (SE): A chaplain to a retirement home in Bruges, Belgium, 57-year-old Father Alexander Stroobandt, is being prosecuted for keeping silent over the suicide plans of an old friend.
 
The priest is basing his defence in part on the requirement to maintain the secrecy of the confessional at all costs and in all circumstances.
 
The case went to trial in the criminal court on November 15. “The fact that the Council Chamber sent my client for trial did not surprise me,” defence lawyer, Jan Leysen, commented. “This does not mean that he is guilty, but merely that the prosecution case has revealed serious allegations against him.”
 
Father Stroobandt received a phone call in October 2015 from 54-year-old Tony Vantomme, whom he had known for 20 years.
 
Suffering from the effects of depression, Vantomme confided his desire to commit suicide to the priest. Three months later and after some communication with Father Stroobandt, he took his own life.
 
His widow cannot understand why the priest had done nothing to prevent her husband’s action or why had he not warned her.
 
The lawyer for the widow, Patrick Martens, is arguing that there was no confession.
 
“It was simply a telephone conversation between a priest and a man who needed help. Yet the priest contented himself by telling my client’s husband that if he had decided to suicide, that was his right and that he could not intervene.”
 
But the defence holds that Vantomme phoned the priest to make his confession before ending his life.
 
“To warn anyone of what the man was planning to do would have violated the confessional seal,” Leysen explained.
 
But a Belgian theologian, Henri Wattiaux, commented that it is at least questionable that a confession could have been made by telephone and where there is reasonable doubt there is no confession.
 
The Belgian Criminal Code protects professional secrecy in general, but the secrecy of the confessional is not explicitly mentioned in the law.
 
Arguments have been made that the law needs to evolve and recent surveys among Catholics in Australia reveal that more than half believe that it needs a good overhaul.

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