Friday, August 24, 2018

On Abusing the Seal of Confession

As the new wave of clergy sex abuse scandals unfolded, many of us heard stories of deviant priests abusing the seal of confession to bind orthodox priests to silence about their despicable crimes.

Like many, I responded with shock and disgust when I heard of this diabolical means of silencing good priests. I had always understood that the seal of confession is absolute, but it made me wonder if a priest who hears such a confession was precluded from doing anything. For example, obviously a priest who hears a confession cannot go to his bishop and say "Bishop, Monsignor Joe confessed to me that he is abusing seminarians," for that would break the seal. But, could not the same priest say, "Bishop, I can't go in to specifics but I have reasons to suspect that Monsignor Joe is unfit for the priesthood and should be investigated"? Such an approach would not reveal that Monsignor Joe had confessed to the priest, nor would it reveal the content of what had been said.

I posed this question to a priest friend of mine and he enlightened me on an aspect of the seal of confession I had been hitherto unaware. He told me that the seal of confession does not merely preclude a priest from disclosing what is revealed in confession, but that the priest cannot take any action based on what he hears in confession.

For example, if Person A confesses to a priest that he is in the custom of habitually stealing from his employers, and then later Person B tells the priest he is planning on hiring Person A, the priest cannot say, "I wouldn't do that if I were you." Even though he's not revealing anything about what was confessed, he is taking positive action based on what he learned through confession, and this violates the seal. He cannot use knowledge he has obtained during confession in any way, not only by word but even by action.

The priest I consulted about this referred me to the following excerpt from Fr. Prummer's 1957 Handbook of Moral Theology:

1. even for the greatest spiritual or temporal good. Thus, for example, a confessor is prevented from confessing his own sin, when its revelation would violate the seal; he cannot take to flight or omit to say Mass is he knows from confession alone that his life is threatened or the wine is poisoned; he cannot dismiss a servant whom he knows from confession to be a thief or to be with child;

2. for the public good. Consequently a priest is not allowed to disclose the name of a penitent whom he knows from confession is about to betray his country or to murder some innocent person;

3. for the good of religion. Consequently a priest cannot expose a penitent he knows from confession will receive Holy Communion unworthily; he is obliged even to administer Holy Communion to such a person if the latter asks for it.

Handbook of Moral Theology by Dominic M. Prummer, O.P. P.J. Kennedy & Sons, New York. 1957

This is why an abuser priest confessing to an orthodox priest is so diabolical; it not only binds him to silence, but to total inactivity.

That being said, the priest I discussed this with said he did not believe the rumors about deviant priests doing this. I can't speak to that; I only know what I have heard.


Murray said...

This is similar to the scenario portrayed in Hitchcock's I Confess: a murderer confesses his crime to the priest-protagonist (played by Montgomery Clift), who subsequently finds himself the prime suspect and is unable to clear his name. The priest's silence under questioning is taken by the police as evidence of his guilt. Worse still, the actual murderer plants evidence implicating his confessor in the crime.

But in the case of priestly sexual abuse, I can't see how this strategy really works. In the case of the "good" confessor, either he knows something actionable about the abuser-priest's activities or he doesn't. If he learns something actionable (i.e. outside of the confessional), the Seal doesn't prevent him from bringing it forward. If he doesn't know anything actionable, hearing something in the confessional just leaves the status quo in place.

Meanwhile, what does the abuser-priest gain from "binding" a good priest in this way? The best he can hope for is that, if the confessor does learn something actionable, he'll just have to be careful not to add material from the confession to what he knows through other means. And of course, if the abuser-priest intends to bind the confessor in such a way, it seems likely that he's not acting from sincere contrition. In which case, why bother confessing at all?

TLM said...

I have heard that this indeed is a tactic these pederasts use from several different priests. I believe this is most likely true. And yes, it is diabolical, but these pederast sodomites in general I do believe ARE diabolical in their annihilation of souls. If you've read any of the Penn. Report (of which I could only read a small part..made me physically nauseated) some of these attacks were ritualistic in nature. (washing the victims mouth out with Holy Water...making them consume the Consecrated Host to 'swallow the guilt') So no, it's not surprising in the least that they would use this way of keeping a priest's mouth shut. These are dangerously evil men we're talking about here.

Murray said...

To add a follow-up to my comment, I seem to recall that the murderer in I Confess confessed because he feared the priest was a witness to his crime, and hoped thereby to "bind" him to silence.

But I'm not sure this works. If a priest witnesses a murder (or an incident of sexual abuse, in the current context), the fact that he subsequently heard the criminal's confession wouldn't alter the fact that he witnessed a crime, and could report it to the authorities without breaking the Seal. He just couldn't relay any supplemental information provided in the confessional.

Am I missing something here?

Joseph Bolin said...

If a priest acquires information about a crime, or has suspicion of a crime, outside of and independently of confession, whether that information comes to him before or after the confession of the crime, he is not bound by the confession so as to be unable to reveal that other information.

That said, if what he witnesses is somewhat ambiguous -- he has e.g. a "gut feeling" that something isn't right -- and he witnesses and has that feeling about it only after hearing something in confession, he may well be reluctant to act on the suspicion... for, after all, maybe the behavior only strikes him as odd, because he knows something about the person in question through confession.

Anna said...

Somewhere along the way I heard an authoritative figure say that in noviciate training the priest in charge is not allowed to hear the Confessions of the novices, which suggests this is nothing new. I also learned that a priest is forbidden to even say whether or not he's heard a particular person's Confession at all. (Another good reason why women shouldn't be priests.)

Anonymous said...

Yes, the seal of confession is Sacrosanct. But that is only for that which is in within the seal. A penitent can make a good, bad, or indifferent confession, and all that it contains is held within the seal. But if the then penitent, over beers with the priest, was to repeat, verbatim, the words of his confession, that would not be sealed. So the priest could repeat, take action on, or react prudently to all those words which he heard over beers, yet the confession would remain sealed.

Of course, prudence dictates that a priest discourage speaking of any subject that may be "confessional" in any other circumstance. But if a gay priest confessed his gayness and impurity, then the confessor happens to walk in on him engaged in impurity, he is bound by the confessional with regard to what the gay priest confessed, but is by no means bound by what his eyes have beheld.

The seal of confession pertains only to information gained within the sacrament and does not pertain to information outside the sacrament.

There are other rules with regard to open forum and internal forum, but those, like doctors or lawyers, are not absolute, and require a special relationship, such as spiritual director, to apply.