The Seal of Confession Could be Latest Casualty of Sex Abuse Crisis

According to Church law, violating the seal of Confession is an excommunicable offence, and priests are supposed to defend the seal, even with their lives.

Newsroom (23/10/2022 11:40 AM Gaudium Press) —  A new report in the United Kingdom recommends legislation that will mandate the reporting of child abuse and says explicitly no exemptions should be given for sacramental Confession, which could lead to a clash with a central tenet of Catholic teaching.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in England and Wales was announced by the British government in 2014 to examine how the country’s institutions handled their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse.

The final report of the inquiry recommended that people be required to go to the authorities “when they either receive a disclosure of child sexual abuse from a child or perpetrator, or witness a child being sexually abused,” adding that a “failure to report in those circumstances should be a criminal offence.”

Furthermore, it said mandatory reporting “should be an absolute obligation; it should not be subject to exceptions based on relationships of confidentiality, religious or otherwise.”

This means that if a priest were to hear a sacramental confession where he learned about child abuse – either from the perpetrator or the victim – he would face criminal prosecution if he didn’t report it to the authorities. According to Church law, violating the seal of Confession is an excommunicable offence, and priests are supposed to defend the seal, even with their lives.

Although the IICSA report is only a recommendation, the government has promised to respond within six months.

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A similar report in Australia published in 2017 made the same recommendation, and most Australian states have passed mandatory reporting laws that do not exempt sacramental confessions.

The Anglican Church in Australia complied with the law, saying that serious crimes such as child abuse would no longer be considered under the seal of Confession. The Church of England is considering making similar legislation.

Although the Catholic Church has clashed with governments for centuries over the seal of Confession, the present moment offers unique challenges for many reasons.

1) Previously, attacks on the confessional were the domain of authoritarian regimes, not democracies in historically Christian countries.

2) The Catholic Church has an abominable record of sexual abuse under its ranks, made even worse because of the extensive covering up of crimes and the moving of abusive clergy. Any attempt to defend the seal looks like another example of “protecting” abusers.

3) A poll last month from EWTN News/RealClear Opinion Research survey found that only 26 percent of Catholics go to Confession regularly. In contrast, 50 percent never go, meaning that most Catholics have no concern over the seal of Confession in their day-to-day lives.

4) Politicians are less concerned about Catholic voters when passing legislation that affects the Church, knowing that many Catholics in the pews are unhappy with their bishops over the abuse crisis and other scandals.

In England, the issue is made worse by the relics of the institutional anti-Catholicism that has affected the ruling class since the Reformation.

In the United States, the seal of Confession is recognized in all jurisdictions as a privilege, and the Church has been quick to go to the courts to protect it. However, the same arguments that have seemed persuasive in the UK and Australia are bound to gain adherents in America, especially as fewer and fewer Catholics avail themselves of the sacrament.

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The collapse in the sacrament in itself is a massive problem for the Church in its efforts to protect the seal: Even Catholics who might, in principle, support an exception for child abuse might realize the slippery slope might lead to their sins in, which the State might take an interest (e.g. embezzlement, tax evasion, or even more severe offences.)

Most experts will say that even if instances of abuse learned about in Confession were reported to the authorities; it wouldn’t change much. Abusers generally don’t go to Confession and would certainly not if they knew it would be reported; victims are encouraged to tell someone about abuse outside of the confessional.

The most likely outcome would be unscrupulous journalists “confessing” to abusing children to see if the priest makes a report to the authorities.

The Vatican hasn’t kept out of the fray. In a diplomatic note after the Australian report, the Holy See emphasized that “a confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.”

“However, even if the priest is bound to scrupulously uphold the seal of the confessional, he certainly may, and indeed in certain cases should, encourage a victim to seek help outside the confessional or, when appropriate, to report an instance of abuse to the authorities,” the Vatican document said.

“Were it to become the practice … for confessors to denounce those who confessed to child sexual abuse, no such penitent would ever approach the sacrament and a precious opportunity for repentance and reform would be lost,” he noted. Ad added: “I am not a betting man, but I don’t think arguments claiming to violate the seal of Confession would keep pedophiles from ‘repentance and reform’ will persuade many legislators.”

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– Raju Hasmukh with files from CNA

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