Wednesday, July 16, 2014


You may have heard that the Louisiana Supreme Court has ordered a priest to violate the seal of confession.  You can read more about that story here.
Now here’s the thing: The argument is that the penitent is said to have agreed that priest who allegedly hear her confession may reveal what was said.  Also, it sounds as though there was the possibility that the priest gave her really bad advice (an understatement if it is true.)  And would it not be great to have evidence against a child molester?  Why not then, in this one instance, allow the seal to be broken?


Here are a number of reasons why: First, the breaking of the seal of confession brings with it the automatic censure of excommunication.  No trial.  No paperwork.  It’s done when the acts occur and nothing can reveres it except a direct action of the pope.  And can you imagine calling the pope and saying, “Excuse me.  I broke the seal of confession.  Would you please let me back in to practice again?  I’ll get it right this time.”

More importantly for the greater world society however is that once the seal is broken for one really good case, it is broken forever.  Right now, people who have done truly horrendous things and would not tell anybody on the face of the earth (save for those who think what they did was Okay) would tell a priest in confession knowing the information dies right there.  The advantage of this is that here is one of the only places on the face of the earth where such a perpetrator can meet with another human being and be told, “That was wrong.  You need to do something about it.  Your very soul is at stake.”  Break the seal and that doesn’t mean these people will be reported, it means they will no longer speak to the one person who might convince them to do something.
Another thing to consider is the girl’s desire to have her seal broken.  She gave up the right did she not?  But think of pornography.  The persons filmed and displayed freely give up their human dignity so there really isn’t a problem right?  Wrong.  Their dignity is not ours to play with even if they freely reject it.  We owe them their dignity whether they seem to want it or not.  The seal is fixed even if someone decides they want it broken.  That is why when someone tells me something in the confessional I remind them that I cannot act on that information and if they want to talk about outside of the confessional they will need to tell me the story again.
Lastly, to break the seal is like relieving yourself in the pool.  You can say all that you want that is was only in the corner.  But everyone knows it affects the whole pool. 


Redearth said...

It seems like the underlying theme in this situation is another attempt to bring the church under state control. The current push to redefine sacraments of the church is a blatant tell, marriage, life and confession have all been targeted and with the cultural perception of equality the preisthood itself is being reframed as "patriarchical" without understanding the reasons why. Too often secular society argues to remove the light post without understanding why it was there to begin with and we are left arguing about it in the dark as Chesterton pointed out. Justice can be served if the criminal confessed to the crime to the police, there's no need to involve the priest this way.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why you compared her sharing her confession with pornography. We can share our confessions if we wish. In this case, she should be treated with the utmost respect (hate that part was not kept sealed due to SP ruling) including her confession. But hers isn't like pornography to me but having to go to the dr and have pictures taken due to a crime. They get to examine it all and she will allow some because she thinks this or that.

I wish the Diocese had not taken that angle first, filing a motion to not allow her speak of her confession.

Fr. V said...


Two things:

1) The girl can share whatever she wants concerning her confession. It is the priest who cannot and the motion was against the state forcing the priest to reveal what took place in the alleged confession.

2) The point of the analogy was this: There are some things that we do not have a right to even if the person involved is complicit. Because a person says its okay to watch him or her in porn, we don't have a moral right to do so. Likewise, because a persons says its okay for the seal of confession to be broken does not give us the moral right to do so.

Perhaps I could have said that better. Thank you for the opportunity.

Anonymous said...

I see what you are saying now.

The motion, though, was for her not to be able to speak of her confession, not the priest.
That is what the SP ruled on.

There is a good summary here, imo, with experts commenting including the Becket Fund.


Fr. V said...


Just to clarify: The diocese did ask that her testimony not be admitted in the case AGAINST THE PRIEST - not that there were any sanctions against her. The case, however, involves the priest being forced by the LSC to violate the seal.

Cathy said...

As part of the scrutiny given to me during the time that I was in formal diocesan discernment for the vocation of consecrated virginity lived in the world, the bishop desired to contact a priest who had once served as both my spiritual director and confessor.

I told the bishop that I wanted my life to be an "open book" and wanted to waive the seal of confession.

However, like you point out, Fr. V, the bishop told me that the penitent has no right whatsoever to release the priest from the seal; this sacred seal is intrinsic to the sacrament itself. The priest is always solemnly bound to respect the seal, under grave penalty, no matter what the circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Fr, I understand that it is worrisome to the Diocese, but they haven't asked him, made him, required him, to break the seal.

I am ready to back anything that resembles a Religious Liberty issue and donate my time, whatever. It just isn't to that point.

Fr. V said...


I'm not sure where you are getting your information. The whole point of the story is that they do want the priest to violate the seal. Unless you are thinking of another story???

Anonymous said...

I am not thinking of another story as other experts, including from the Becket Fund, see it the same. Worrisome but not yet against religious liberty. The motion they, Diocese, filed was to keep her from speaking of her confession or referencing to it. They may, or may not have done that to protect the priest. Since we can speak of what we confessed, it was no surprise they, SP, ruled as they did. Nowhere does it say he, priest, has to break the seal. Because the plaintiffs claim she was looking for help, etc, instead of confession, the priest should have reported. That is error on their part unfortunately. That is all we are left with. Since the case is sealed we may never know anything else either. It may well be settled right now.

Anonymous said...

J.D. Flynn, a canonical adviser and special assistant to Bishop James Conley in the Lincoln Diocese in Nebraska, explained that the seal of the confessional is “absolutely inviolable,” because the Church wants people “to freely seek the mercy of God through the sacrament of reconciliation.”

“A priest can’t disclose the contents of the confession, nor can he say whether someone has been to him for confession or not,” he said. “It has to be treated with absolute secrecy.”

In the case where a penitent is revealing criminal matters during confession, such as knowledge about a future crime or ongoing abuse, Flynn said the priest can only ask the penitent to repeat that information to him after confession.

But the situation is different under canon law if the priest’s communications take place in a counseling relationship, a session of spiritual direction or other contexts of pastoral care.

“In those relationships, there is a limited amount of confidentiality,” Flynn said. Like other counselors, those disclosures to a priest would ordinarily remain private “unless a person poses a danger to himself or others or unless a person releases him to do so.”

“But in the field of confession, there is no possible release that way,” Flynn said, despite the hard cases. “The priest is bound to that secrecy in all circumstances, regardless of how he may suffer for it.”

Eric Kniffin, an attorney with Lewis Roca Rothgerber LLP, who has litigated religious-liberty cases, said the priest-penitent privilege is “very strong” in the United States and has deep roots in English common law. The first case in the U.S. to recognize the priest-penitent privilege, he said, was People v. Philips in 1813.

What Will the District Court Do?

But Kniffin, who previously worked for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty on the Hobby Lobby and EWTN HHS mandate cases, said concerns that the Church’s religious freedom is being violated are premature.

“There is something unfair here, in that the [perpetrator] is dead, and the priest can’t really address the allegations,” he said. “But the courts’ rulings so far have not violated the Church’s religious liberties.”

He said the high court was right to allow the girl to testify about her own confessions.

“As a Catholic myself, I understand that nothing prevents me from sharing with another what I told a priest and the advice I received in confession,” he said.

Kniffin believes that the plaintiff’s argument that part of the girl’s confessions falls outside the priest-penitent privilege is a dead-end strategy.

“No court is going to parse a confession, and find that the second half of that sentence was just a description of a situation, so wasn’t really a confession of sin. No way.”

The real focus for the court, he said, will be whether the priest had knowledge of the abuse outside of the sacrament.

“If she told him elsewhere or if [the priest] was in another situation in which he saw something suspicious, then he has to report that under the law,” he said.

Still, Kniffin said he appreciates the Church’s sensitivity over where the district court might take the case.

“If all the communications were in the confessional, but the priest is still found to be a mandatory reporter,” he said, “then that is saying the priest has a legal duty to violate the confessional. And that can’t be the case.”

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