Throughout the history of the Church, the sacramental seal of Confession has been sacrosanct – it is the belief and practice of the Catholic Church that whatever is revealed to a priest in Confession is both sacred and secret and can, under no circumstances whatsoever, be revealed to anyone else, and this is explicitly laid out in Canon 983 of the Code of Canon Law.
Confession is considered to be one of the seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church, instituted by Christ Himself as described toward the end of the Gospel of Saint John, when Christ gives the power of forgiveness to His disciples – “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you forgive, are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain, are retained.” (Jn.20:22-23)
The Confessional is the place where sinners – that is, every single one of us without exception – goes to proclaim our sins to Christ, through the ministry of His priest, in order that we might receive – through that same priestly ministry – His divine mercy and the forgiveness of those sins by means of the absolution which is given to us. That forgiveness presupposes an authentic spirit of contrition on the part of the penitent, in order that forgiveness can be received through absolution; it is not enough to simply ‘go through the motions’ – our interior dispositions have a very real effect on the grace and mercy we receive in this Sacrament.
Probably on most occasions, the sins proclaimed by the penitent are mundane and parochial – the ‘usual’ or ‘normal’ sins of every day life, and likely common to many in the same state of life, whatever that might be. But there are also other times, when the mundane is not what is being confessed and when the particular sins are truly horrific by any standard – and perhaps none more so that the abuse of children or vulnerable people. And that is where the problem begins.
The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.
As a direct result of the clerical abuse crisis which has engulfed and devastated the Catholic Church – like various other institutions – over too many decades now, there is a very real threat to the seal of Confession.
This comes in the form of the widespread call for mandatory reporting of any revelation of sexual abuse which, in some nations, has already been enshrined in law. In England and Wales, following the publication of the final Report of the Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) Report in October 2022, it is being recommended that there should be no exemptions to this recommendation, whether religious or otherwise. Were this recommendation to become law, this would place a statutory and mandatory requirement on priests to uphold it – even if abuse were to be revealed as part of a sacramental confession.
Now, it seems to me that there are very real and practical ways of balancing the seal of Confession with any forthcoming statutory law which obliges mandatory reporting, but that is not the subject of this piece and it is not within my competence to speak on them.
Not surprisingly, there have been vociferous outcries from various bishops and priests, bewailing this threat they see being imposed on the Sacrament and calling on priests to uphold the seal even if this means breaking the Law.
And this sort of sums up the whole problem.
Putting aside the rights and wrongs of any threat to the seal of Confession, it seems to me that what these bishops and priests have entirely forgotten is this – it is their own evil abuse and the subsequent cover-up of that abuse (coupled with the other evils perpetrated on the victims of abuse in a myriad of different ways) which has directly led to the Church finding herself in this position.
Had the Church acted with integrity in the first place, had she acted swiftly and decisively to root out those who abuse others and to remove them from the clerical state, the position now would be different; but the Church did not do this. Instead, she sought to protect only herself, her reputation and her own fiscal assets, with no thought at all for the victims of abuse; she sought to guard and defend the perpetrators – not the victims – of abuse; and she did nothing that could have been reasonably expected to be done by the very Church which proclaims itself to be the Body of Christ. Recent interviews from certain clergy – bishops and priests – have made it perfectly clear that they continue to place their own rights and their own laws above the rights of victims and the duty to protect victims and potential victims.
And throughout all this, it remains perfectly clear that the Catholic Church is absolutely and entirely unable to ‘police’ itself in this area.
And so here we are.
The Church finds herself in a difficulty completely of her own making. One might be forgiven for thinking that there is more than a touch of divine retribution at work here.
In this moment, I do not think the Church can claim any moral high ground – at least as far as this particular matter is concerned – for she has not only lost, but decisively thrown away, any such moral authority. The whole Church is now reaping the fruits of her having done so.
This is, I think, a moment when the Church herself must begin to authentically see her own need for contrition, for humility, for reparation and for finding some way of trying to regain some morality and moral authority, no matter how hard this might be and no matter how long it will take.