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Attack on the confessional

From Ireland to Australia, legislative proposals are being put forward, to force priests to break the sacramental seal when the penitent is a pedophile
by Marco Tosatti | Source: Vatican Insider

For centuries, confession has been one of the characteristic traits of the Catholic Church, and some parts of the Orthodox Church. Other Christian faiths practice it in a form that is very different from that traditionally established by Rome.


Over time, it has been seen as a formidable tool, both for the salvation of the soul and (according to critics) for “control of the conscience.” In one of his autobiographical books, Benedict XVI sees it as a tool of social justice; in his country everyone kneels, poor people as well as big shots, to tell those behind the grating their own misdeeds. The poor are comforted at the thought of their betters kneeling on the same step as they do…


These days, confession – and especially the sacramental seal that imposes total secrecy on the priest – is under attack. In Ireland, a law has been proposed that would force priests to infringe upon the secrecy of confession if someone confesses to the crime of pedophilia. In Australia, the federal government was advised to follow the example of that far-away island, and force priests to report those who confess sexual sins against minors. The initiative comes from Independent Senator Nick Xenophon. “There is no contest when it comes to protecting the innocence of a child or maintaining a religious practice,’” he stated. “Why should someone be absolved of their sins when it comes to child abuse because they've received a pat on the back from their priest?”


Of course, the Vatican’s position is quite different. Article 983 of the Code of Canon Law admonishes: “The sacramental seal is inviolable; thus it is absolutely illegitimate for the confessor to make the penitent known, even only in part, using words or any other means, and for any reason.” Violation of the rite of confession is not allowed even in cases where death threats are made to the confessor or others. Some moralists, including Tomás Sánchez (1550-1610), believed that mental reserve – a form of deception that does not require the explicit statement of a falsehood - was a morally legitimate act for the purpose of protecting secrecy. The priest who violates the secret confessional automatically incurs excommunication latae sententiae, which can be handed down only by the Pope (Canonic Law 1388 §1). This imposes a ban on celebrating any further sacraments and the imposition of a long period of penitence - in a monastery, for example.


If the penitent confesses his responsibility for a criminal act, experience teaches us that the priest can make it a required condition for absolution that the penitent turns himself into the authorities. But this is all the priest can do, and above all he may not inform the authorities himself, even indirectly.


There are some cases when a part of the confession can be revealed to others, but always with permission of the penitent and always without revealing his or her identity. This happens, for example, with some sinners who cannot be pardoned without authorization of the Bishop or the Pope. In such cases, the confessor asks the penitent for authorization to petition the Bishop or the Apostolic Penitentiary (a cardinal delegated by the Pope for such cases), using pseudonyms and communicating only the most necessary details. The request is approved and forwarded to the Penitentiary through the Apostolic Nuncio (the Pope’s ambassador in that country) and thus the communication enjoys the protected security of diplomatic correspondence.


It will not be surprising if the response to the Irish and Australian proposals is terse and sharp. Graham Greene in his novel The Power and the Glory paints a portrait of an unworthy priest, a “whisky priest,” living in Mexico during a time of anti-Catholic persecution. He consciously runs the risk of falling into a trap (which ends up bringing him to his death) in order to hear the confession of a dying man. This is, of course, fiction, but like all myths it contains both things that have never taken place as well as things that have always happened. The secretary of the Australian Conference of Bishops, Brian Lucas, responded frigidly to the senator’s proposal: “His proposal does nothing to protect children and flies in the face of a fundamental right of people to practice their religion,” he said. “No Catholic priest would ever betray a penitent. Priests have gone to their death rather than do it.”


In September 2001, Monsignor Pierre Pican, Bishop of Bayeux, was sentenced to a three-month imprisonment, for failing to report a priest of his diocese, accused of pedophilia, pleading professional secrecy. Upon disclosure, Monsignor Pican forced him to undergo a treatment cycle at a specialist care centre. For his courageous defense of confessional secrecy, he received a letter of praise by Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, on behalf of John Paul II.

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Published by: Maria
Date: 2011-08-08 03:30:26
I believe that a priest should tell the authorities about crimes, esp. committed against children he has heard in confession. Jesus said it's the little children that will enter Heaven. We must all be vigilant and protect them.

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