Protecting the Seal of Confession

Forcing Priests to Reveal Sins

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JULY 27, 2012 ( A call to oblige priests to break the seal of confession was made recently in Australia. It comes during an inquiry being held into cases of child abuse in the state of Victoria by a state parliamentary committee.

“I think it’s great, I think it’s very important,” said the coordinator of Melbourne Victims Collective, Helen Last, according to the Herald Sun newspaper on July 18.

“Priests have in the past history of the church been martyred for refusing to break the seal of the confessional and I believe that priests today would continue to do the same,” was the reaction from Father John Walshe, chairman of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy.

Victoria’s Premier Ted Baillieu does not favor obliging priests to reveal what they are told during confession.

In an article published by the Herald Sun the following day he referred to an earlier inquiry, headed by Justice Philip Cummins, that recommended against forcing priests to break the seal of confession.

He said members of that inquiry “all concluded that the sanctity of the confessional should remain.”

“I think that’s a powerful argument,” Baillieu said.

It is not the first time there are calls in Australia to require priests to report cases of child abuse heard during confessions.

Federal independent senator Nick Xenophon said that the Catholic Church needed to consider removing the confessional seal in cases of abuse, the Australian newspaper reported, May 20

“If someone has confessed to a priest with information about the abuse of children, whether they’re the perpetrator or not, then shouldn’t the authorities know about that?” he said.


Threats to the seal of confession have become a reality in Ireland, where the government has recently passed legislation that obliges priests to report to authorities people who confess to child abuse within the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

In his Second Stage speech on June 26 during the Irish parliament’s consideration of the new law, Alan Shatter, the Minister for Justice and Equality, stated: “This Bill applies to all persons, to all organizations and to all sectors of society. No one is exempt from prosecution.”

This attempt to breach the long-standing practice of the confessional seal is in spite of the fact that in the same speech Shatter admitted that “the issue of confession does not arise in regard to the many cases of criminal offences identified in the Ryan, Murphy or Cloyne Reports.”

“Nor, as far we know, is it an issue with regard to the reprehensible activities of the late Father Brendan Smyth and many of the other priests who have during the past two decades been convicted and sentenced in this State for child abuse,” he went on to say.

Shatter’s seeming ignorance of the importance given by the Church to the seal of confession was made evident earlier when he said that he did not understand the “excitement” around obliging priests to report cases of abuse during confession, the Irish Times reported April 27.

The depth of the opposition by priests to revealing what they hear during confessions was revealed by comments made by Father Sean McDonagh, head of Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests.

An article in the Irish Independent on April 28 described him as “One of the country’s trendiest clerics.” The article observed, in a dismayed tone, that both liberal and conservative theologians and priests are united in their opposition to the legislation.

Protecting children

Following the calls to require priests to report cases of abuse heard in confession the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Victoria, published on its Web site an article on the topic written the previous year by a then auxiliary bishop of the city, Timothy Coselloe SDB. He is now the archbishop of Perth.

“The desire to do everything possible to protect children from this horrific cruelty is compelling,” he admitted. “Therefore the important question is this: would including priests in such a regime of mandatory reporting, specifically in relation to what is disclosed to them in the Confessional, achieve this outcome?”

“The answer is almost certainly ‘no’,” he stated.

The confidentiality of confession, he explained, makes it easier for someone guilty of serious sin to seek forgiveness.

“If this anonymity, and even more this confidentiality, could not be assured, it is most unlikely that anyone would confess to the terrible sin and crime of sexual abuse of children.”

Confession, he continued gives a chance for someone to confront “the terrible nature of their behavior,” and he added: “Such a personal confrontation could be the beginning of a radical change in their lives.”

It might even be a first step in encouraging them to seek treatment and to surrender themselves to the police, he said.

“The imposition of mandatory reporting, and the subsequent destruction of the confidentiality of the confessional, remove any hope that this outcome might eventuate,” he concluded.

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