An article in Monday’s Daily Beast erroneously suggests that Pope Francis has allowed a priest to divulge what he heard in a deathbed confession. The deathbed in question belonged to none other than Italy’s former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, who allegedly confessed his sins to a young priest named Antonio Mennini before he was killed by the Red Brigades.
Barbie Latza Nadeau’s provocative piece is titled “In Italy’s Most Famous Terror Case Will the Confessor Confess?” Nadeau writes that the Pope’s move “has raised eyebrows in Rome, where confessors are assumed to have to take the secrets of those who confess to the grave.”
Nothing could be further from the truth, since everyone in the Vatican is fully aware that the Pope has no power to dispense with the secret of the confessional, which no priest may break for any reason whatsoever.
Religion reporting is notoriously sloppy compared to the more rigorous fact-checking involved in political writing, business reporting and even sports coverage, but this howler stands out as particularly egregious.
Nadeau seems to confuse the Pope’s lifting of Mennini’s diplomatic immunity—which means that he can testify in court despite his diplomatic status as a Vatican nuncio—with releasing him from the obligation of silence regarding the sacrament of confession.
Mennini, who is now an archbishop, could still refuse to testify about “what Moro told him during that last confession,” writes Nadeau, but “he could face contempt of court if he refuses to tell investigators about the circumstances during that confession now that his immunity has been lifted.”
The facts of the case are far less sensational than Nadeau would have readers believe. Pope Francis has asked Mennini, who had contact with Aldo Moro while he was a prisoner of the Red Brigades, to testify to an Italian parliamentary committee that is still investigating the murder of the former Italian prime minister. That’s it.
Mennini, in fact, insists that he did not even hear the confession of Aldo Moro when he was detained by the Red Brigades, and that he did not act as a courier of objects or documents for Moro in jail. The archbishop also correctly notes that not even the Pope can dissolve the seal of the confessional.
When Aldo Moro was murdered in 1978, Father Mennini was 31 years old and a mere assistant pastor of the Church of Saint Lucia in Rome. He came from a large and influential family and had initiated a diplomatic career when he became involved in the storm of the tempestuous Moro affair.
Now, Pope Francis would like members of the Church hierarchy to cooperate in every possible way with a criminal investigation that is still open, and Mennini is one of them.
The seal of the confessional has nothing to do with it.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter: @tdwilliamsrome.