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Seal of confession should remain inviolate



Next week the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to the Sexual Abuse of Children is scheduled to deliver its final Report. From what we have heard it seems likely it will recommend that the seal of confession should no longer be regarded in law as inviolable.

ConfessionalIf, either through the confession of a perpetrator or the report of a victim, a priest becomes aware in the sacrament of reconciliation that the sexual abuse of a child has taken place, that priest will be obliged by law to bring the incident to the notice of the police and to identify both perpetrator and victim. The seal of confession will therefore not be protected by law in such circumstances.

The possibility of this recommendation from the royal commission has caused not a little consternation. In most contemporary western jurisdictions, the seal of confession has been legally exempt, and quite a number of films in particular have centred around this exemption, especially where a murder has been committed and confessed.

But the horrific revelations of the royal commission and the realisation of both the long-term effects of the sexual abuse of children and the addictive nature of paedophilia have led to a reassessment of the legitimacy of this exemption. Not only the royal commission but also many members of the community — and not only those hostile to religion — now think that such an exemption from the onus of reporting should no longer be accorded to priests, the perpetrators and their victims.

First, let me say that I have been a priest for almost 50 years, and I have never heard the confession of a paedophile. Paedophiles are notoriously extraordinarily secretive, and it is unlikely, even with the seal of confession still being operative, that they would expose themselves to the remotest possibility of being identified through the sacrament of reconciliation. I further suspect that, if the seal of confession is no longer exempt in law, paedophiles are even less likely to reveal themselves as perpetrators in confession.

Secondly, let me say that, unless the penitent takes steps to show who he or she is, the priest rarely has any idea of the identity of the person confessing. That's why most confessionals are dark and obscure, why there is a veil of some sort between the priest and the penitent, why most priests turn side-on when hearing confessions. It is precisely to protect the identity of the penitent.

The belief which surfaced at the royal commission that priests normally know who their penitents are and could reveal their identities to the police is naïve. Only when confessions are conducted in a public space or face-to-face would it be possible for a priest to identify a penitent. I doubt whether paedophiles, even if they were to go to confession, would do so in any other but a dark and non-identifying context.


"If a small child comes to the sacrament of reconciliation and says she has been sexually abused by her uncle, precisely because it is not her sin it does not fall under the seal of confession."


Thirdly, and this is very important and frequently misunderstood: the sole subject of the seal of confession are the sins of the penitent and only those other circumstances which are integral to the nature of the sin. So, if a small child comes to the sacrament of reconciliation and says she has been sexually abused by her uncle, precisely because it is not her sin it does not fall under the seal of confession. She is not the sinning perpetrator or accomplice, she is the innocent victim of the abuse. The priest would not be breaking the seal if he reported such an incident to the police.

Because of the common misunderstanding that everything that happens in the confessional falls under the seal of confession, the priest would probably be well advised to ask the child to repeat outside the confessional what she has said inside the confessional. But whether said inside or outside the confessional, the report that one has been the victim of sexual abuse does not fall under the seal of confession. 

Of course, if there are matters other than sin that are revealed in the confessional, they would also normally be regarded as strictly confidential. The priest, as with any other professional counsellor, would only in very exceptional circumstances reveal the details of these private non-sinful confidences. One of these exceptional circumstances would be when a child reveals that she (or he) has been the victim of sexual abuse.

Fourthly, what to do if it is a paedophile who confesses child sexual abuse in the sacrament of reconciliation, particularly if he or she expresses sorrow and a sincere purpose of amendment? This is very difficult. Recent studies indicate that, because of the addictive nature of paedophilia, even perpetrators with the sincerest purpose of amendment are likely to re-offend unless confined and removed from children. I believe, therefore, that a priest would have no alternative but to defer absolution of such a penitent until the perpetrator has surrendered himself to the police.

Some moral theologians claim that such a policy is unnecessarily severe. They say it should be sufficient to defer absolution until the penitent has handed himself over to treatment and is confined in a psychiatric or similar institution. I am doubtful if such an alternative will be effective. I doubt whether it will sufficiently guarantee the security of other children from the likelihood of further offences at the hands of even the most contrite self-confessed paedophiles. I suspect that it is only the legal system that can guarantee sufficient security and protection from future offences and, of course, provide some solace for the previous victims.

Of course, you may ask: Why is the Church as severe in deferring absolution with paedophiles and compelling self-surrender to the authorities when it is not so demanding with other penitents — for instance, murderers? Well, there are other precedents for deferring absolution. For instance, absolution in cases of significant theft is normally conditional on restitution of the stolen goods. And if some other innocent person is liable to be convicted and imprisoned for a crime which I have committed, when I come to the sacrament of reconciliation and confess that I am the real perpetrator, I will expect absolution to be deferred until I have handed myself over to the authorities and the innocent defendant is released.

Finally, however, does the seal of confession still bind the priest if the paedophile confesses his sins but refuses to hand himself over to the authorities? Then, certainly, absolution should be deferred or even denied. But does the seal bind the priest not to reveal the identity of the perpetrator and his/her sin?

I'm afraid that the seal does bind the priest to absolute secrecy, even in such horrific circumstances, and even granted the likelihood that the perpetrator will re-offend. The subject of the seal is the sins of the penitent, and this is what the paedophile has confessed. He has confessed in the sacrament asking forgiveness not just of the priest but of God. Unfortunately he is not willing to take the only reliable steps to ensure he will not reoffend by handing himself over to the law, and so without this commitment absolution will be denied — as an incentive to take the step which he is currently refusing.

But he is still entitled to the inviolability of the seal. He has come freely to the sacrament in a spirit of penitence on this understanding, and it would be a devastating breach of trust not to honour the seal. The priest, of course, will counsel him to surrender himself to the authorities and to seek psychiatric treatment, but even if refuses, he will be protected by the sacramental seal.

As regards the sins which the penitent confesses the sacramental seal is absolute.  If exceptions were to be made to identify paedophiles, it would be only a matter of time before exceptions would be sought for other crimes where recidivism is endemic: e.g. mafia-style murders, domestic violence, serial infidelity, serial rapists etc. And then the inviolability of the seal will be shattered.

I know this is very difficult, particularly when we have come to realise both how widespread and devastating child sexual abuse is and how some perpetrators have exploited the seal of confession to obtain absolution, and then, because of the addictive nature of paedophilia, have gone on to reoffend. I suspect that the royal commission will recommend that, for these reasons, the seal of confession should no longer remain absolute.

But I also know that all priests of my acquaintance will rather go to jail than violate the seal. I cannot then see that no longer exempting the seal will be anything but unproductive. Perpetrators will be less likely to go to confession and priests will go to jail.



Bill UrenFr Bill Uren SJ AO is Rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne.

Topic tags: Bill Uren, Royal Commission, Seal of Confession, clergy sexual abuse



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Existing comments

Bill, these 'rules' about the seal of the confessional are just rules that the Church has made up for itself. They have no more validity than any other 'rules' that some other religion, sect, cult, club, association or business has made up for itself. The only reason that the Church finds itself in this predicament at this time is because it has shown itself wilfully incapable of reporting crimes which it has heard about outside the confessional. You only have to look at the findings of the Royal Commission into Melbourne and Ballarat. What guarantee does society have that when all the dust settles on those findings that the Church won't go back to its old secretive ways of 'protecting' the institution? Nothing's changed, there has been no change in organisation, or in accountability structures. Sure, there has been a lot of public handwringing, statements of repentance, and pleadings for forgiveness, but no one - so far - has lost his head - ecclesiastical or corporeal - over these cover-ups. Why should we think anything will change?

Ginger Meggs | 06 December 2017  

If a confessor withholds absolution from a penitent paedophile or any other serious civil law offender until he/she reports to the legal authorities, surely the sacrament has not been enacted. In such a circumstance, Fr Uren, does the seal still apply?

john frawley | 06 December 2017  

Yes, Ginger, Bill seems to be making the common mistake of imagining that rules like this are somehow irrevocable or divine, and not man-made. It’s a wrongful premise to begin with, and in the context of the exposure of the hierarchy’s willingness to subordinate the protection of children to ecclesiastical reputation, it’s completely bankrupt.

smk | 06 December 2017  

It’s apparently better that a hundred guilty persons go free than one innocent person is convicted. By the same token, it must be better that a hundred paedophiles walk out of the confessional unidentified and unreported under a conditional absolution than one sinner of any sort is deterred from entering it. If one believes that a person in sin is living with a critical risk, and that the auricular confessional is equivalent to the emergency room at the hospital, the reason for a seal needs no further explanation because no deterrence can be tolerated. If one is devoid of those two senses, the point of criticality will be missed and the resulting conversation rendered futile. Legislating to remove the seal is secular interference with a matter ancillary to and in support of religious doctrine. To (cheekily) borrow terminology from Roe v Wade, the seal is to be protected because it exists within the penumbra of the doctrine of sin.

Roy Chen Yee | 06 December 2017  

The "confessional booth" is an invention of 16th century Italy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confessional The ancient practice of confession (i.e. once at the time of death or after having committed murder etc.). Priests should not hear confessions unless they are 45+ years and ordained for 10 years. Young priests get in trouble with confession. Penance can include the requirement that you report your felonies to the police to receive absolution.

John D. Horton | 06 December 2017  

Going to prison instead of breaking the seal of the confessional is honorable. A faithful testimony to Christ in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and a form of reparation, a form of penance. A stand in solidarity for the Crux these children have been through.

AO | 07 December 2017  

Non-compliance with secular perception of the sacrament, even to possible jailing, would be an affirmation and sign of the sacred.

John | 07 December 2017  

Who can say ''His Word'' is more sacred here than there? Can you John? The sacredness for the respect of children as Christ instructs believers is just as sacred as His displaying His wounds to His disciples and granting them forgiveness and the power to forgive others... Good men also go to prison. Or to the pit. Whichever term you prefer. It is the reason for which they are willing to go that matters. Not that Nero or the secular world has called for it. St Peter- St John of the Cross and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Just to mention a few. So what. They not merely 'preached' His Word... Philippians 4:13 - Philippians 1:21 - John 15:13. They remained faithful to the end.

AO | 07 December 2017  

Bill, I am so disappointed in your argument. This is why the abuse of children continued - the priests and other involved were protected by the rules of the Church - how does this fit with the teachings of Jesus?

Jennifer Raper OAM | 07 December 2017  

bill, this is a very difficult thing to determine, the confessional seal must remain in tact, but not at the expense of children being violated.

maryellen flynn | 07 December 2017  

John, in answer to your question, the seal holds as soon as someone intending to confess does so - whether or not absolution is granted. So, even if absolution is deferred or (rarely) denied, the seal holds. (Of course, it would be different if the person had come to the confessional with another purpose - e.g. to mock the confessor or to reveal something other than their sin.) Ginger, I think you are right that the Church still has a long way to go in addressing the abuse scandal. Still, our belief is that the priest in confession is, at once, a representative of God and of the community. The confessional seal is an attempt to square those two roles - allowing the penitent openness before God and community while also assuring them that they are being heard in a confidential and safe environment. One could, of course, argue that the Church is just a made-up institution and that religion itself is just a human club pointing to nothing beyond itself. That, however, would seem to foreclose any discussion with those of us who believe differently. All we have then is two clashing belief systems with no starting-points in common.

Justin | 08 December 2017  

A couple of comments from a lay perspective: Most Catholics don't use the old form of personal confession. The total replacement of that form with the Third Rite would solve the problem. Most Catholics would much prefer that form in any event. The Royal Commission should, within its Terms of Reference, only address the removal of the seal re child sex offences. Has it really addressed other sins?

Michael Gill | 08 December 2017  

It must surely be the case that anyone considering approaching the Sacrament of Reconciliation, knowing that absolution will be deferred or denied unless and until he or she complies with certain self-reporting requirements, will simply not come. Otherwise - it seems to me - the intention could only ever be to land the priest-confessor in judicial and ecclesiastical hot water, since from the arguments given the 'stalemate' would render no other outcome possible. Perhaps someone seeking retribution against an individual in particular or the Church in general might enter the confessional with thoughts other than genuinely penitential ones on his or her mind, and I have no doubt that the sacrament will have been abused and the priest compromised from time to time by such a person. (Consider the movie 'Calvary'). While certainly NOT wishing to make this into a 'rock-vs-hard-place' argument, it is worth noting Canon 1388.1 "A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See..." There would appear to be no practical advantage in forcibly removing the seal of confession. Genuine would-be penitents might be deterred, confessors would be jailed for remaining silent or excommunicated for not doing so, and those towards whom any changes are directed (i.e. sexual abusers) will not have been inconvenienced in any way.

Richard Jupp | 08 December 2017  

Bill's argument is mainly constructed on pragmatic grounds, which may seem fair enough in addressing a largely secular society, but, as we see from the comments, for many it fails to convince. But the seal of confession is not merely a practical calculation. It derives from the nature of the sacrament, in which a penitent confesses to God, who is alone able to forgive, and not to the priest, who is merely a minister. The seal arises from the sacred nature of the person's relationship to God, in which the priest has a most delicate and solemn presence. This, of course, will be even more unconvincing to many people, but in the end priest and church will have to say that the seal is inviolable because it is so from the sacred nature of the sacrament itself. Pragmatic and strategic matters may be argued about, but in the end they are not of ultimate consequence. If that is not understood, well, it is not understood.

Paul | 08 December 2017  

I'm not sure this argument holds much water. If the purpose of the inviolable seal is to encourage sinners to come to confession and be absolved it's not working very well with pedophiles, apparently. Not one! in 50 years! So not many occasions for confessors going to gaol surely. And bearing in mind that only two people know what was confessed, namely the perpetrator and the priest, how is the news going to get to the authorities that there has been an unreported admission of child abuse, so they can prosecute the priest for failure to report? Even if they do away with the "seal" I doubt whether they will take it to the extent of bugging all the confessionals.

oldG | 08 December 2017  

It's a pity the views expressed by Father Uren, or some theologian of equal erudition, were not sought by the Royal Commission when the subject of the Seal of the Confessional came up. I'm afraid Australia's episcopal leaders did not exactly cover themselves in glory when explaining the pastoral implications of the sacrament of Reconciliation. I agree with the comments of John D Horton re- the evolution of the manner in which the penitents expressed their sins to God and the Christian community; their plea to God and the community for forgiveness; their expression of resolve not to offend again; and their willingness to make amends for harm done to others. The words used to describe this sacrament over the centuries have emphasised different aspects - Confession, Conversion, Forgiveness, Penance & Reconciliation. The sacrament is not some form of emotional catharsis by which sinners wipes the slate clean and feel good for a couple of days or weeks and then fall back into their habitual defects of character. It is rather an opportunity to gain a practical insight and knowledge their own personality flaws and to discuss them with an understanding and trustworthy person acting 'in loco Christi'.

Uncle Pat | 08 December 2017  

I was led to believe that there are some sins that require some form of reparation before absolution was given. The confessor would give a requirement and say that one would have to prove that the requirement was carried out before absolution was given. If this was so the requirement would be that it should be reported to the authorities, before absolution.

Elizabeth Craven | 08 December 2017  

This is exactly as I understand the matter of the Seal. But, apart from all that, what is heard in the confessional is hearsay and could not be used as evidence in the court. Yes, I know; the police would be interested. But how would it help to demand to know what is revealed in Confession, when the demand is ignored when outside as has proved so much to be the case?

Peter Horan | 08 December 2017  

What worried me greatly earlier in the year when the Archbishops were giving evidence was that at least two extended the seal of the confessional to include disclosure by a child that they had been abused. Whilst I respect the argument for retaining the seal of the confessional in relation to sins confessed by the penitent I can't for the life of me see any justification for not following up in some way when a child reports having been abused.

margaret | 08 December 2017  

I suppose it’s inevitable that this discussion has focused on the canon law concerning the ‘Seal of the Confessional’ but it’s not a change in canon law that may be proposed by the Commission. The change that may be proposed is in civil law which currently privileges certain types of communications, notably those between an accused and his/her lawyers, but also those that occur in the confessional. What may be proposed is a withdrawal of that privilege and that is what Bill is concerned about. So the proposal, if it comes from the Commission, will not be about changing Canon Law, it will be about withdrawing a privilege which civil law currently extends to communications in the confessional. And, as I said in my first post, it would be difficult to argue against that given the record of deliberate cover-ups and systemic failure to report crimes in the past.

Ginger Meggs | 09 December 2017  

The seal of confession is part of a form of the sacrament of Penance - private confession - which is pastorally contingent, and not divinely ordained. As such that form can and must be subject to constant reform to meet the pastoral needs of the day if it is to be pastorally effective. Its pastoral ineffectiveness is evident in its virtual abandonment even by those few Catholics who continue to worship. If that evidence does not convince some of the need for its reform, its use by paedophile priests to entrap and control, and even sexually assault, children, ought to do so. This form of the sacrament should be replaced by the Third Rite which would require no personal confession. That way, the task of policing paedophilia would be restored to the proper secular authorities, and the obsolete and repugnant theology, in which the confessor is the moral policeman of an authoritarian church claiming the authority of an angry God, would be repudiated. Should private confession persist, the common good demands that legal protection of an element of contingent pastoral practice should be waived when the safety of children from paedophile priests is threatened.

Michael Leahy | 10 December 2017  

The “Seal” is manmade. Just another abuse of power. Congratulations to those priests who would protect the children by breaking so-called “Seal”. You are serving the Christ that I believe in. The rest, you can argue all you wAnt but you don,t have any God-given right to not report sexual abuse of children. I do not give permission for you to take the risk of my children, or anyone else’s children, being sexually abused. Make no mistake this is what you are doing if you do not report!

Patricia Hamilton | 10 December 2017  

Priests are human beings, so being ontological representatives of God in the confessional does not mean they are immune to exploitation of vulnerable children. Every time I confessed abuse to the priest as an eight year old he told me it was my fault and I (an eight year old child) had to make it stop. Later whilst presiding at school assembly this same priest declared to all that I was headed for hell if my behaviour didnt change. Priests are expected to forget what is told in confession but evidence shows they remember and keep the score.

Trish Martin | 11 December 2017  

I'm sure Father Uren would know that there is no blanket rule that can be applied "on principle" , and that all moral decision-making deserves to be carried out on a case by case basis. There's a '90s UK movie on this dilemma that will leave you with more doubts than conclusions.... http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110889/ It's called "Priest"

AURELIUS | 12 December 2017  

That is indeed an excellent film, AURELIUS. I remember seeing it almost 23 years ago. It still speaks volumes.

Ginger Meggs | 13 December 2017  

As i understand it, a priest has the right to withhold absolution until satisfied the penitent is truly penitent and demonstrated this by behaviour.

hilary | 14 December 2017  

Along the same line of thought as hilary - would not a solution to this dilemma be that the penitent's penance be to confess to a secular authority as well in the case of a grave sin involving an innocent minor. Given that the royal commission has recommended the seal of the confessional be lifted - shouldn't the benefit of the doubt lie with the wellbeng of the innocent child in these cases rather than some esoteric notion of religion freedom/tradition?

AURELIUS | 16 December 2017  

Bill, with a little tweaking of your treatment of child disclosure of victim-hood, I think you have captured the issues well. And given the license for privileged conversations in various corners of a secular society, I suspect the Confessional Seal will endure unchallenged by Government legislation. A more urgent problem for the current crop of bishops is their self imposed irrelevance to public discourse. The litany of "it wasn't us, it was them" (their predecessors) and "we'll have to ask Rome about that" and "we sorry" provides a self portrayal of protracted passivity. This artful dodging will prove to be more damaging to advancing the message of the church than some stones being thrown at the confessional.

Bill Burke | 17 December 2017  

Father Bill, the problem for you and the church is that the ordinary punter does not understand your argument. Many Australians, including Catholics, consider canon law and sharia law as potentially competing with civil law and therefore to be treated with suspicion if not contempt. Australians will not tolerate religious laws incompatible with the laws of the land. Full stop.

John Brady | 17 December 2017  

Further to Bill Burke's comment that the 'artful dodging [of the bishops] will prove to be more damaging to advancing the message of the church than some stones being thrown at the confessional'. I note with amazement that while there are at least 50 recommendations in the Report that relate either directly or indirectly to the Catholic Church, the only recommendation to which either of the two bishops or Bill Uren have responded is the one about the state withdrawing privilege from 'the seal of the confessional'. Once again, the Church's concern is about itself, its own interests, and the job security of bishops and priests. They still haven't 'got it' ! And to make that even more obvious, while they were knee-jerking to this one recommendation, the their boss, the Pope, was withholding judgement and saying that the whole report required careful consideration !

Ginger Meggs | 18 December 2017  

If a priest is not permitted to break the seal of confession by telling another what has been disclosed to him during the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is only logical all priests interviewed by the media are saying no one has ever come to them confessing to sexual child abuse. Catholic priests are legitimized by canon law to be silent in such circumstances. If they need to tell a lie to help them keep the silence. I am guessing they can then confess this sin and receive absolution. Lying is forgivable breaking the seal not? I pray the clergy truly understand that tiny baby in the mangare this Christmas. And cry bitter tears of repentance for they failings.

AO | 20 December 2017  

One aspect of this debate that has not been addressed is the relationship between the seal of the confessional and the power of the priest. The priest alone has the power to absolve. Take away the seal and you take away the power. A clericalist priest without power is like an emperor without clothes. And that, I suggest, is why the immediate response from the hierarchy to the Commission's findings has focused in this area rather than all the others.

Ginger Meggs | 21 December 2017  

I don't have any specific expertise in the field, but it seems to me that requiring priests to report what is confessed to them would be rather like arresting the people who visit clean-needle facilities. You won't fix the problem; you'll get a few initial arrests, and then you'll find that people stop coming, and you've lost a service that could have reduced harm.

Carl Antuar | 31 August 2018  

This was a very good article by Fr. Bill. If I may suggest professor Keith Thompson. Here is link Keith has many published papers and books; one of them is the Western Australian Jurist. “SHOULD RELIGIOUS CONFESSION PRIVILEGE BE ABOLISHED IN CHILD ABUSE CASES? DO CHILD ABUSERS CONFESS THEIR SINS?” Here is a link; https://www.murdoch.edu.au/School-of-Law/_document/WA-jurist-documents/2017-Vol-8/Western-Australian-Jurist---Thompson---2017---Final.pdf. God Bless. The seal of Confession never caused child sexual abuse, rather it was the offenders themselves and the failure of those that knew of the offence outside of confession

Craig Neil | 02 September 2018  

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