From the 1983 Code of Canon law 983 §1
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.
If a priest – or a bishop – violates the Seal of Confession he an latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication, the lifting of which is reserved to the Holy See. It is one of the very few censures for which the lifting is reserved the Pope himself (can. 1388 §1). This is normally handled through the Sacra Penitenzieria Apostolica. There are extremely limited cases in which portions of the content of a confession can be revealed but only with the permission of the penitent and always with anonymity.
Yesterday I posted about the situation surrounding the hotly debated letter written in 2001 by then-Prefect Card. Castrillon to the French Bishop Pican in which the Cardinal praises the bishop for not having denounced a priest (who had abused children) to civil authorities. The puzzling letter had left me scratching my head. Then I found a detail that had escaped my notice: the bishop had first learned of the priest’s abuse of children in the context of confession. The bishop was later sentenced to jail time for not denouncing the priest.
I therefore mused whether or not a) the bishop was reluctant to go to civil authorities because he was bound by the Seal and b) the Cardinal was praising the bishop because the bishop didn’t violate the seal even though he went to jail.
I then raised some issues about the Seal of confession.
Now there comes, lupus in fabula, a story on the site of wisn.com about a priest who, allegedly, violated the Seal of confession.
I think the following story is a little tasteless, but since it is out there I think it is good to deal with it and add some points.
IMPORTANT CAUTION: In my experience even the worst of the liberal, dissenting, addle-headed yahoo priests I have known over the years have taken the Seal of confession absolutely seriously. They might say stupid things in the confessional, but they take the Seal seriously. Do not worry about this point when you go to confession.
My emphases and comments:
Priest Removed After Violating Seal Of Confession
Rev. Verhasselt’s Case Goes To Vatican For Review
OCONOMOWOC, Wis. — A Waukesha County priest [Archdiocese of Milwaukee] is on administrative leave, accused of breaking the seal of confession.
Rev. David Verhasselt is on administrative leave from St. Catherine’s of Alexandria in the town of Oconomowoc while the case is investigated.
The exact details of the situation aren’t being released, but 12 News has learned that Verhasselt is accused of violating the seal of confession in some way. [Again, my experience of even the worst of liberal dissidents is that they take the Seal seriously. Also, note the language. There is an accusation. The press account says "in some way". When did the press start getting interested in accusations about things like this?]
This is a serious crime in the church — one that’s not taken lightly, church officials said. [That is an understatement. Delicts having to do with the Seal or with the internal forum carry the toughest censures the Church can impose, including even dismissal from the clerical state.]
The bells at St. Catherine’s sent out a somber tone on Wednesday, resonating from a parish that just lost its leader. [HUH? Maybe it was time for the bells to ring?]
"They’re devastated, they’re hurt and they’re all trying to support him in any way," Deacon David Zimprich said.
Verhasselt has been with the church for 16 years.
"When father got here, it was about 100 families. It’s now 1,000 families," Zimprich said.
Those families are flooding the church with calls, wanting to know why Verhasselt was removed suddenly Monday afternoon and placed on administrative leave.
"It’s that serious. It goes to the very life of people practicing their faith," Archdiocese Judicial Vicar Rev. Paul Hartmann said.
Hartmann said a parishioner accused Verhasselt of breaking the seal of confession. After a preliminary investigation, Archbishop Jerome Listecki decided to remove Verhasselt until it’s determined whether or not he violated church law.
"Everything you say, you can trust the priest. It’s never going to be shared," Hartmann said.
Confession is sacred to the Catholic faithful. Priests are not, under any circumstances, supposed to share what is told to them. Theology experts said it breaks the trust between parishioners and the church. [Yes, it is about trust.]
"A priest betrays that, he betrays the very nature of the church, but also he betrays everybody else in the future from receiving that same kind of loving forgiveness," Marquette University theology professor Rev. John Laurance said.
Listecki released a statement about the situation on Wednesday. He said the archdiocese supports Verhasselt, while making sure the laws of the church are respected and obeyed.
Verhasselt’s case now goes to the Vatican to be reviewed.
I think the choice to run this story was in very bad taste, but it is out there on the web now and it needed some parsing.
The first thing that jumped into my mind is that, because this was in Milwaukee, where that horrible case of child abuse was that set off much of the present round of Pope baiting in the mainstream media, the local newsies have their eyes and ears open hoping to get another taste of blood.
Nevertheless, violating the Seal of confession is about as bad as it gets.
That is why at the top, and in that other entry, I wondered about the situation with that 2001 letter from Card. Castillon and the case of Bishop Pican.
Again… friends… do not worry about violation of the Seal when you go to confession. The dumbest, the oddest, the most dissenting heretics I have known in the priesthood take the Seal seriously. We are hyper-careful about this.
Think of the case of Bl. Fr. Felipe Ciscar Puig, a Spanish priest martyred in 1936 for protecting the seal of confession.
St John of Nepomucene refused to reveal a confession and was killed by King King Wenceslaus IV.
A priest or bishop must not even make use of the knowledge he gains in the confession, much less reveal it, even to save his own life or protect his own reputation or to refute a false accusation. He cannot even say what he did not hear in confession. Think of the movie by Alfred Hitchcock I Confess, which quite accurately portrays the implications of the Seal: a priest hears the confession of a murderer and the murderer then frames the priest with the murder.
It is sometimes difficult for a priest to know what the penitent thinks is confidential when they are talking "outside the confessional" – which can be a literal and physical confessional or anywhere else. It would be good for priests and penitents to clarify this explicitly so that misunderstandings don’t ensue. This is also a good reason why priests do well always to use a confessional when hearing confessions.
Again… don’t worry about priests and the Seal when you go. Cases of violation of the Seal as as rare as hen’s teeth.
In other coverage of this, on the site of National Catholic REGISTER, the good NCR, we find another piece:
Fr. Verhasselt denies the charge saying “I’m innocent, I’m shocked at the charges. That’s definitely not me.”
Please say prayers for all involved.