From a reader…
I recently went to confession in one of those open style baroque confessionals. Afterwards, I found someone directly outside the confessional (where she would have heard what was said by both parties).
I confronted her about it, but she just waved me off and told me not to worry about it and claimed she “heard nothing”. I gave her the benefit of the doubt, but the next day after Mass someone said something to me that left me with a strong impression that some of what came up in my confession may have been revealed to an additional party. I’m not entirely certain, and won’t know for certain, but in the meantime this is bothering me. What do you recommend?
Priests should take care that confessionals are either properly sound-dampened or that the line for the penitents waiting is a goodly distance. We don’t want other people to hear what penitents or the confessors say. Similarly, priest confessors should instruct people to lower their voices. It is amazing how many people crank up the volume, even when they themselves are not hard of hearing.
This deals with the Seal or secret of the confessional. Priests, of course, are famously bound to keep the Seal and to reveal or use nothing of what they hear in sacramental confession and internal forum. The penalty for priests who break the Seal is rightly severe, including latae sententiae excommunication, the censure being reserved to the Holy See. The priest can also be dismissed from the clerical state.
What if a lay person overhears a confession and then reveals the information?
In can. 983 §2 we read:
The interpreter, [e.g. translator] if there is one, and all others who in any way have knowledge of sins from confession are also obliged to observe secrecy.
That means that if you overhear something in a confession, you are – effectively like the priest confessor himself – bound to silence.
So, say Jody Bigears overhears a penitent and decides to share what she heard with Trudy Blabbermouth. Is Jody excommunicated? For a person to incur the censure of excommunication, a person has to know that the act/sin was a crime to begin with. If Jody had no idea that revealing the contents of a confession overheard – even if a lay person – was wrong wrong wrong – she doesn’t automatically incur the censure.
This is another reason why priests should educate their flocks about many practical matters having to do with the Sacrament of Penance, including the Form and the Seal. People need to be secure in knowing a) that they will be absolved with the proper Form so that they don’t have to wonder and b) that their confessions will be kept secret. Period.
As far as recourse is concerned, there is very little that you can do. Canonical recourse requires that you or someone acting for you gather proofs (e.g., testimony about the facts, if not audio and video recordings, etc.). It is unlikely that anyone would submit to giving them. I suppose that, if you want to pursue this, you could ask the people involved what happened and what they did. It is hard to know how that will be received.
Meanwhile, I guess a little humiliation could be good for the soul. Right?
Everyone reading here should keep in mind that this is a super rare situation which should never keep anyone from going to confession.
GO TO CONFESSION!
If there is a problem with the sound dampening of the confessional or overhearing because people are too close, then you should quickly inform the priest so that he knows and can do something about it. And if he won’t, then inform the bishop.
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