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Some points regarding the debate over the seal of confession in Australia

November 15, 2012

There is nothing like a crisis to force one’s thinking through difficult issues, even though a crisis is perhaps the worst time imaginable for thinking through difficult issues. A crisis seems to be erupting in Australia regarding the seal of confession in cases of suspected child abuse. Let’s try to think through some of the issues.

1. The seal of confession is, by divine and canon law, absolutely inviolable (Canon 983 § 1) and any confessor who violates the seal is liable to excommunication (Canon 1388 § 1). There is no need to hoot and holler about this point. It need only be reiterated (especially in the face of an appalling declaration by Sydney ret. aux. Bp. Robinson that he would violate the seal in certain cases!) and then let the chips fall where they may. The Church will never change her discipline on this point and she will never grant a dispensation from it.

2. In the Catholic tradition—and without trying to parse how this might apply under Australian law on clergy confidentiality, of which I know little—not every private communication with a priest is a confession subject to the seal, and not everything learned on the occasion of a protected confession is subject to the seal. Determinations of the true parameters of the seal of confession must be left to experts in the area. An accurate understanding of the scope of the seal might obviate some Church-State conflicts; it will certainly clarify lines that the Church will not cross no matter what the State might demand.

3. While the seal of confession is central to this discussion, it is not the only issue raised in these cases. Additional restrictions on the use of confessional knowledge are set out in Canon 984, and moral theologians recognize that some communications with clergy might fall within protected categories of natural or entrusted secrets. Again, experts need to sort this out.

4. I think Cdl. Pell’s comment about some not taking the confessions of pedophile-priests (if that’s what he actually said) needs to be contextualized for readers.

     4. A) No sin, not even horrific ones such as the sexual abuse of minors by clerics, is unforgivable; any Catholic with this or any other grave sin on his or her conscience should confess it promptly. Indeed Catholics have, by divine and canon law, a right to approach the sacrament of confession (Canons 213, 843, 991), a positive obligation to confess grave sins (Canons 988, 989), and a basic right to absolution (Canon 980). All of this Pell takes for granted, of course, but it wasn’t said at the time.

     4. B) Now, I could imagine an ordinary like Pell announcing his practice of not hearing the confessions of his clergy and/or staff (to avoid the complications for diocesan governance that might arise for him under Canons 983 and 984), but—and here is the only point where Pell’s words might need clarifying—those kinds of governance considerations would not seem to apply to priests hearing the confessions of their brother priests. Thus, I can see no basis for priests to avoid hearing the confessions of priests—or of anyone else for that matter—even if child sexual abuse is or might be part of the confession.

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