Can a priest ever reveal
what he hears confessed?
Seal of confession vs. counseling in question of confidentiality
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
What is the seal of confession? Is it different from a counselor's "privileged information" or patient/client confidentiality? Can a priest tell a court if he knows someone is innocent and that another person committed the crime?
A reader from New London wanted to know how binding the confidence is upon the priest or minister to whom we entrust our sacramental confession.
The answer is fairly direct. A priest may never, under penalty of excommunication, reveal what he hears in confession.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law, the law of the Church, says: "The sacramental seal is inviolable. Accordingly, it is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion" (no. 983, par. 1). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reinforced the code's rule last year.
"It is never permitted for a priest to break the sacramental seal," said Fr. John Doerfler, assistant chancellor for the Green Bay Diocese. "There are no exceptions."
In fact, a priest is expected to go to jail or even give his life rather than violate the seal. The premier saint associated with the seal of confession is St. John Nepomucene (d. 1393). He was Archbishop of Prague and confessor to the queen. Legend says that, when King Wenceslaus IV demanded that John reveal what the queen had said in confession, the archbishop refused. The enraged ruler had John drowned.
All was public
Originally, all confession was public and there was no need for a seal of sacramental privacy. However, Irish monks began hearing private confessions around the sixth century, and the practice soon spread. By the ninth century, sacramental secrecy had become widely expected and the seal of confession -- first decreed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 -- followed. The seal is taken so seriously that it binds even a lay person who acts as an interpreter during a confession.
St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1273) explained the seal by saying that it is as if the priest does not hear the confession -- so does not know it. God hears the confession and "God does not reveal the sins which are made known to Him in confession, but hides them" (Summa Theo-logica, Supplement; Question 11:1)
Aquinas added that even the pope "cannot permit a priest divulge a sin."
So is this seal of confession the same as "privileged information" shared with a counselor?
No, says Fr. Jay Fostner, O.Praem., a professional counselor and director of the Student Counseling Center at St. Norbert College, De Pere. "It's really apples and oranges," he says. "In the confessional, everything is confidential. A priest can be subpoenaed, but the court's expectations are that they won't be forced to testify."
On the other hand, he adds, counselors are bound by mandatory reporting laws. If a counselor learns about ongoing child abuse, for example, they are required to report it to the authorities.
Fr. Dave Ashbeck, pastor of St. Sebastian Parish in Isaar and a professional counselor with New Wellness Associates in Green Bay, says that failure to report such things can result in fines, loss of counseling licenses and even jail.
"If someone tells me they have been abused," he says, "I have to tell them that I am required by law to report it." It is important to remember, he adds, this is the case in a counseling situation, not confession. In counseling -- even with a priest -- "the seal of confession is not part of the process." Priest-counselors are careful to make that clear to clients.
A priest acting in a pastoral role, separate from confession, also has different obligations.
"If someone came to me for counseling as their pastor," Fr. Ashbeck said, " I would not feel obligated in the same way as if they said they wanted to go to confession."
What happens, though, if a priest -- whether or not he is a counselor -- learns of a crime under the seal of confession?
They cannot reveal it. The seal must always remain intact.
"A priest risks being cut off from the church" for violating that seal, Fr. Fostner said. This is why, Fr. Doerfler explained, he himself prays for "holy amnesia. We literally try to forget."
If a serious matter like crime in involved, both Fr. Fostner and Fr. Ashbeck said they would take steps to convince the penitent that he or she needs to resolve this issue. Most likely, they agreed, this would be to advise the penitent to report the crime as a sign of true repentance.
"I would counsel someone, in the sacrament, to reveal it," says Fr. Ashbeck.
Release from the seal
But if the person did not take that advice, there is nothing more a priest could -- or would -- do. To even discuss it again with the penitent, a priest asks that person to be released from the seal. The penitent alone can release a priest from the seal but, if they do not, the seal of confession remains intact. Even the death of that penitent does not release the priest from the seal.
"People need to be able to come to us," says Fr. Doerfler, "and know that it will not be repeated under any, any, any circumstances. If people felt something they said would be revealed, it would destroy the whole integrity of the sacrament."
(Sources: Summa Theologica; the 1983 Code of Canon Law; Catholic Online Saints; The Catholic Encyclopedia; Origins; Arlington Catholic Herald; and The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism)