I have read with concern and anger that a court in Louisiana has ruled that a priest of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, who had heard the confession of a minor concerning abuse by an adult, can be compelled to break the Seal of Confession and testify in court. HERE
A lot more of this is coming soon, friends, to a court and diocese near you.
In conflict here are issues of religious freedom and exemption of certain professionals from compulsion to testify (clergy, doctors, lawyers, etc.), on the one hand, and, on the other, statues about “mandatory reporting” of certain crimes (such as child abuse).
The Times-Picayune says:
The Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge has issued a statement decrying a decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court that could compel a local priest to testify in court about confessions he might have received. The alleged confessions, according to legal documents, were made to the priest by a minor regarding possible sexual abuse perpetrated by another church parishioner.
The statement refers to a lawsuit naming the Rev. Jeff Bayhi and the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge as defendants and compels Bayhi to testify whether or not there were confessions “and, if so, what the contents of any such confessions were.”
The Louisiana Supreme Court said in its ruling that the priest’s confidentiality can only be claimed “on behalf of” the confessor, [The terms are confusing here. In the Church, the "confessor" is the priest, who hears the penitent's confession. Here, it seems that "confessor" means the person making the confession to the priest.] so he can’t claim confidentiality to protect himself since the confessor [ditto] waived her privilege. It maintains that the confession, then, wasn’t “privileged communication,” so he should possibly be subjected to mandatory reporting laws.
The Diocese is ready to fight this to the US Supreme Court.
Priests who hear confessions, who hear something in what is called the “internal forum”, understood to be a confidential revelation, may not, must not, reveal what they heard. This is called the “Seal” of confession. The 1983 Code of Canon Law of the Latin Church says in can 983 § 1: “It is a crime [Latin nefas is much stronger than just "crime". Call it "abominable crime".] for a confessor [the priest] in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason”. The priest confessor must not break the Seal to protect his reputation, to refute a false accusation, to save his own life or the life of another, to avert a crime or attack, or to justice or law enforcement (e.g., reporting a crime). The priest confessor must not be compelled by any authority, civil or ecclesiastical, to reveal a person’s confession. A confessor must not reveal the contents of a confession either directly, by repeating what has been said, or indirectly, by some hint or clue or gesture. The priest must not use the information learned in a confession for his own gain. He cannot reveal the identity of penitents.
If a priest breaks the Seal, he incurs, automatically, an excommunication (can. 1388). He is, thus, immediately suspended a divinis. The censure incurred is reserved to the Holy See. He can be also “reduced” to the lay state.
BTW… any person who overhears a confession is also bound by the obligation not to reveal what she heard. This is also the case for language interpreters who help a penitent and priest communicate.
None of this means that priests can’t ever talk about anything heard in confessions. If sufficient care is taken to “anonymize” everything and make the details general, examples of moral situations can be discussed, which is important for seminary training. But care must be taken not to use any example that could reveal the identity of a penitent.
Sometimes a case might arise in which a penitent says that she’s okay with the priest revealing what she said in her own confession. In other words, she gives permission. Even then the penitent should repeat to the priest, outside the context of confession, anything she told him during confession. In that way, the priest could – without question – talk to others about what the penitent said in that second conversation. The Seal, however, remains regarding the previous sacramental confessional.
Also, if the priest needs either advice about what to tell a penitent, or needs to obtain the faculty to lift a penitent’s censure, he must ask, within the internal forum moment, the penitent’s permission to do so.
Moderation queue is ON.