CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 15 December 2018

Print Version    Email to Friend
Why Church law forbids violating the seal of confession

VATICAN (CNS): The seal of confession is so important and sacred that a priest would be automatically excommunicated under canon law for directly revealing the contents of a confession.
 
The sacramental seal is absolutely inviolable and “admits no exceptions” even if the intention was to prevent an imminent evil or serious crime, said Monsignor Krzysztof Nykiel, regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court dealing with matters of conscience.
 
Not even the death of the penitent can release the confessor from the obligation to maintain the seal, he added.
 
In an essay, published in the Polish journal, Teka Komisji Prawniczej, in 2014, he noted that the Church has always given special importance to the confidential nature of administering the sacrament of penance.
 
Since the seal has its origin and foundation “in the truth and transcendence of God,” he wrote, “only God can open and reveal the secret that the seal encloses.”
 
The nature of the sacrament of penance reflects and respects the intimate, personal encounter between God and the individual. Confession is to be a “holy place of this communication of love and friendship” where God can come and dwell, the monsignor wrote.
 
The priest who hears confession is present “exclusively in the name and place of God,” not of himself, he added.
 
“Opening his heart, the penitent confesses his sins, therefore, to God himself, and only God, through the ministry of the priest, absolves his sins,” Monsignor Nykiel wrote. That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1467), states that the confessor can make no use of what the penitent has said, which “remains ‘sealed’ by the sacrament.”
 
The seal and secret of confession must be preserved by the confessor, an interpreter and anyone who in any way, even casually, comes to know of the sins confessed. Any Catholic who makes a recording of a sacramental confession or divulges it through the media can be subject to automatic excommunication.
 
The sacrament differs completely from other forms of professional secrecy, such as doctor-patient confidentiality or lawyer-client privilege, in which a patient or client can waive confidentiality. With confession, not even the penitent has authority to exonerate the confessor from the sacramental seal, Monsignor Nykiel wrote. The penitent also cannot compel him to testify in court about what he heard.
 
The monsignor said on August 31, that “the lack of vigilance, failure to report and the cover-up of cases of abuse cannot be considered in any way a ‘noted’ characteristic of the Catholic Church nor a consequence of the sacramental seal tied to confession.” 
 
He said they are “a distortion, a criminal and perverse practice against gospel principles conducted by individual members of the same Church.”
 
The suffering and pain endured by so many people—victims of sexual abuse, abuse of power and conscience—”impel us to strongly condemn and fight this atrocious crime and do everything possible to guarantee the protection of minors,” he said.
 
While a confessor cannot reveal what was said during confession, penitents can speak about what they know. Confessors may try to encourage, but never coerce, penitents to bring allegations or concerns forward.
 
A similar pastoral practice is involved when, during a sacramental confession, a penitent reveals she or he is the victim of domestic violence; in those cases, confessors should clearly condemn abuse and encourage the victim to consider what can be done in terms of preventing further harm to themselves or others.
 
According to the article, Addressing Domestic Violence in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, by Father Stephen Dohner of the Diocese of Cleveland, the United States of America, confessors cannot force penitents—whether victim or perpetrator—to inform outside authorities, and they must “resist the temptation to tell the victim what she must do or to insist that she act in a way she may not choose or before she is ready. This may be interpreted as another form of control.”
 
If a person confesses to having committed abuse, the priest in the confessional—who is acting as a channel of God’s mercy at that moment—cannot order him to incriminate himself, but he should advise the penitent to seek appropriate help and to truly understand the consequences of his actions, Monsignor Nykiel said. 
 
In the case of hearing an allegation from a victim, the monsignor said the confessor can strongly urge the person to report the abuse to the police or others and provide the penitent with specific information about who to turn to.
 
“Confessors are not the masters of the sacrament of reconciliation, but ministers of mercy, therefore they cannot act according to their will, but must help the penitent in light of Church teaching,” he said.
 
Maintaining strict secrecy safeguards the sacrament itself, which Christ established as a “sure gateway of salvation for sinners,” Monsignor Nykiel stressed.
 
If the faithful, especially those most in need, who have recognised the gravity of their sins, could no longer be sure they were confiding only in God and no one else, they might no longer turn to the sacrament of penance, he said.
 
It is precisely because of this concern for the salvation of souls, he said, that the Church imposes the severest canonical punishment on breaking the seal of confession, he said.

More from this section