Vatican: Priests Must ‘Scrupulously Uphold the Seal of the Confessional’

A priest hears a confession at the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Jose, Costa Rica on June 02, 2019. - Costa Rican deputy Enrique Sanchez, of the ruling Accion Ciudadana party, proposes a bill that would allow to raise the secret of priestly confession in investigations about child abuse. (Photo by …
EZEQUIEL BECERRA/AFP/Getty Images

ROME — The Vatican has reasserted the strict duty of priests to defend the seal of the confessional in the face of mounting external pressure to overturn the ancient practice.

Australia’s Royal Commission into Institution Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had recommended that the Church consider eliminating the seal of confession for cases of abuse, a recommendation that the Vatican has rejected.

In a response released last Friday, the Vatican asserted 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 said.

“It should be recalled also that the confessional provides an opportunity – perhaps the only one – for those who have committed sexual abuse to admit to the fact,” the text states. “In that moment the possibility is created for the confessor to counsel and indeed to admonish the penitent, urging him to contrition, amendment of life and the restoration of justice.”

“Were it to become the practice, however, 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,” it added.

In its final report, published in December 2017, Australia’s Royal Commission into Institution Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommended that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference consult with the Vatican on eliminating the seal of confession for cases of abuse, as well as withholding sacramental absolution from anyone confessing abuse until they report themselves to the police.

In its own 2018 response to the Commission’s report, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ACBC) said that Church authorities would work to ensure that to the extent possible the concerns of the Commonwealth are met in regard to safeguarding principles in Confession.

“However, the ‘seal of Confession’ is inviolable for the priest confessor,” it declared.

“Children will be less rather than more safe if mandatory reporting of confessions were required,” the ACBC noted, adding that “the rare instance where a perpetrator or victim might have raised this in Confession would be less likely to occur if confidence in the sacramental seal were undermined; and so an opportunity would be lost to encourage a perpetrator to self-report to civil authorities or victims to seek safety.”

The Catholic Church has traditionally taught that the seal of confession is absolutely inviolable under all circumstances and breaking it for any reason is a grave sin.

“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,” the Church’s Canon Law states.

The Church honors as saints several “martyrs of confession” who were killed because of their refusal to divulge information obtained while administering the sacrament of confession.

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