Cover Story

Confessional secrecy could be under threat. It must be defended

Confession in St Peter's Basilica (CNS)

The Seal of Confession has long been a matter of public controversy. But Catholics, especially priests, have shown a remarkable solidarity in defending the seal – the obligation of a priest to never, under any circumstances, reveal the sins that are confessed to him.

The subject is back in the news because the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA), as part of its laudable efforts to prevent the evil of child abuse, has started to ask questions about the seal, and whether it enables abuse.

There are some precedents for overruling the seal. In July, California nearly passed a law requiring priests to break the seal if child abuse was confessed. Only an outcry from Catholics prevented the bill from passing.

Earlier this month, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster made clear to IICSA that this was a crucial question for Catholics: “I think the Seal of Confession is an essential part of the exercise of priesthood as a nexus between my sinful humanity and the mercy of God, and I would defend the Seal of Confession absolutely.” He added that priests had in the past died rather than break the seal, and suggested that they still would. In speaking thus, the cardinal speaks for us all.

Start with the practical point. If abusers know that they will be reported to police, the likely result is that they will not mention abuse. But today’s critics of the seal are not only thinking of catching abusers: they also believe the sacrament itself encourages abuse in the first place.

One prominent critic of the seal is Richard Scorer, a child abuse lawyer, who sees the seal as protecting abusers. He has written: “The confessional has operated as a forum in which abuse is forgiven and the slate wiped clean. Far from creating an opportunity to tackle clerical sex abuse, the Seal of the Confessional is an enabler of it.”

Scorer argues that the sacrament gives a licence to the penitent to continue sinning – a criticism also levelled by the early Protestant reformers. Catholics, it is suggested, can go on sinning, because they can always go to Confession and say they are sorry at some later date. But this overlooks the necessity of true repentance and a firm purpose of amendment, both of which are necessary for absolution to take effect. Someone who confesses must resolve not to sin again: the existence of forgiveness is not an encouragement to wrongdoers, but precisely what tells them they must stop.

As Bishop Philip Egan put it in a recent statement: “If during the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a penitent confesses the abuse of a child or vulnerable adult (either recently or historically), then, as with any grave sin that is a serious civil offence (eg murder), the confessor will typically do all in his power to persuade the penitent to declare themselves afterwards to the statutory authorities.”

The idea that confessors protect sinners and promote sin has been with us since the Reformation. One of the most notable cases in this country concerned Fr Henry Garnet (1555-1606), who was executed for the “misprision of treason”, that is, the offence of knowing of a treason about to be committed and not reporting it to the authorities. Fr Garnet was accused of having foreknowledge of the Gunpowder Plot through the confessional, and accused too of forgiving the sin of treason before it had been committed (an impossibility in Catholic theology).

Garnet’s real crime, however, was being a priest and Jesuit, and accounts of his trial and execution, interestingly, hint that he was the object of some (necessarily covert) sympathy. Before he could be cut down alive to be drawn and quartered, the crowd rushed forward to tug him by the legs to spare him such a fate.

Despite the Jacobean government’s attempt to blacken the priest as an enabler of the worst of crimes, Garnet is now recognised as a victim not a perpetrator of evil. However, he has never been canonised by the Church, unlike St John of Nepomuk (c 1345-1393), considered the first martyr of the confessional seal. His statue stands on the Charles Bridge in Prague. He is shown with his finger on his lips, a reference to the seal and his subsequent death in its defence.

According to pious legend, King Wenceslaus of Bohemia was afraid that his wife had a lover. St John was her confessor, and King Wenceslaus ordered him to reveal the name of the lover, but to no avail. Therefore, the king ordered John to be drowned in the Vltava River. In fact, St John may have been martyred for less dramatic reasons to do with the king’s desire to control the Church and its property. But it is certainly interesting to note that he is revered to this day as one who died protecting the Seal of Confession. For Catholics, this has always been something worth dying for.

Why? Would it be so very catastrophic for us if the state compelled British priests to pass on information gleaned in the confessional when that information pertained to child abuse, particularly when it could stop an abuser? Surely in the matter of child abuse, an exception to confidentiality could be made, if it was in the interests of protecting children?

That may all sound reasonable, but anyone who knows how the sacrament works, from whatever side of the grille they’re on, must know that the integrity of the sacrament is at stake.

For Catholics, Confession is not simply a conversation between two people. To quote Bishop Egan again: “In the administration of this sacrament, the priest stands in persona Christi: he is not hearing confessions as himself; rather, he is the vehicle or means by which the penitent confesses their sins to God and by which the penitent receives from God mercy and forgiveness. The priest ‘merely’ facilitates the sacred communication between the penitent and God: any information he hears does not belong to him and so is not his to reveal.”

Imagine if legislators, not understanding all this, passed a law requiring priests to begin every Confession not with the usual blessing but with the warning that “Anything you may say may be reported to the police, if it concerns the crime of child abuse.” The effect would be dramatic. Would you really want to confess to someone who reports not just to God and God alone, but also to an earthly authority? If you have come to lay bare your soul before the judgment of God, do you really want to be told that the man on the other side of the grille works for God and for the police too in certain circumstances?

And just think too of the nature of Confession: one confesses deeds but also dispositions, attitudes and indeed habitual vices. What happens when someone admits to being sexually attracted to young people, without having acted upon this attraction? Must the priest then perform some sort of risk assessment? Must he then cross-examine the penitent about whether he has in fact committed a crime? And should the priest report the innocent person, in order to protect himself from future accusations of protecting a paedophile?

As should be apparent, any insistence on mandatory reporting would mean that the conversation between priest and penitent would be not just a conversation between two people; for a third party, namely the law, would form a ghostly presence.

In these cases, priests are more than likely to warn people not to say anything that may incriminate them or their confessor; and thus in the conversation in the confessional, something becomes out of bounds, better left unspoken. This would actually enable abuse: it would go unmentioned in the Confessional, whereas currently priests are able to persuade abusers to hand themselves in to the authorities.

The existence of Confession, the seal that protects it, what Catholics call the “internal forum”, is always going to be unwelcome to lawyers and policemen, and not simply because it is beyond their control and jurisdiction. It will remain a stumbling block because while the law dispenses justice and punishment, the Church dispenses justice and mercy and penance.

Church and state operate using different models. The state must not be allowed to subvert the Church. In standing up for the seal, Cardinal Nichols is defending the integrity of the Church, a sacred charge received from God Himself, who, let us remember, welcomes sinners and has compassion on them.

The Church urges sinners to come to a realisation of their sins, as does God. The law takes a different approach, working through coercion rather than consent. As we all know, our jails are filled with unreformed criminals who have not repented and may indeed never do so. The absoluteness of the seal protects the absolute nature of God’s love for sinners. It will, I am sure, be defended at all costs.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a moral theologian and contributing editor of the Catholic Herald