From a reader…
EWTN is reporting that the Australian government is trying to make priests mandatory reporters for child abuse, by requiring them to report what they hear in confession. While this is, obviously, a direct assault on the sacrament, it’s the next part of the report that puzzles me…
In the statement, Francis Sullivan, CEO council, said that while the Catholic Church and the council itself “have consistently argued that these reporting provisions should not apply to the confessional, the Royal Commission has now made a different determination based on information and evidence it has heard over the past four years.”
“The whole concept of confession in the Catholic Church is built on repentance, forgiveness and penance,” Sullivan said, adding that “if a child sex-abuser is genuinely seeking forgiveness through the sacrament of confession they will need to be prepared to do what it takes to demonstrate their repentance.”
Part of this, he said, especially in cases of sexual abuse, “would normally require they turn themselves in to the police. In fact the priest can insist that this is done before dispensing absolution.” [?!?]
Is this part true?
Well… NO! it isn’t.
And, sort of, yes it is. We have to make distinctions.
First, NO! The priest cannot make absolution conditional upon a criminal turning herself in. To wit: “I won’t give you absolution unless you turn yourself in.”
However, a priest can withhold absolution if he does not believe, on a firm grounding, that the penitent is truly sorry.
Hence, a priest can strongly urge, firmly counsel, warmly encourage a penitent to “do the right thing”, that is, conform her amended life to the dictates of justice. However, if he has a moral certainty that the penitent is penitent and intends to amend her life, he should not withhold absolution.
When we commit a sin, we violate others, God and neighbor. Justice is the virtue which governs how we give to others that which is due to them. If we hurt another person, we have to make some kind of restitution. Often perfect or full restitution is incomplete and arbitrary. In the case of God, we limited mortals cannot do anything proportioned to God’s infinite goodness. All the penances we get in the confessional are arbitrary in that sense. Also, how do we truly make things up to people, or society, whom we have harmed? We have to do something, of course, in justice. Things will get sorted out in our Particular and, especially, General Judgment at the end of things.
So, upon hearing about some serious crime or other, one that means a lot more than speeding or unpaid parking tickets, the priest has to advise the penitent to do the right thing. He can urge the person to turn herself in, but he can’t impose that as a condition of being absolved.
Part of the reason for that is found implictly also in the canons in the Code of Canon Law covering the Seal.
Can. 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.
Can. 984 §1. A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.
Can. 983 doesn’t explicitly deal with the issue at hand, that is, requiring a penitent to turn herself in in order to receive absolution. However, the Seal would be implicitly violated, because the direction of the priest to go to authorities would indirectly result in his causing the contents of the confession to be revealed to third parties. Priests cannot act on the information they receive “in any manner”, which includes constraining a criminal to (as his proxy instrument of the revelation of information) reveal herself as such even if the crime was a really serious one.
Moreover, can. 984 clearly states that a confessor may not use what he hears during a confession “to the detriment of a penitent”. One possible detriment would be that, by so directing, the priest could undermine the penitent’s trust and attachment and future use of the Sacrament of Penance, not to mention other detriments.
Furthermore, the validity of the absolution imparted by the priest does not depend on the completion of a penance assigned.
So, NO, priests cannot “force” penitents to turn themselves in as a condition for absolution.
It is possible, however, that the priest, having heard several times the confession of the same criminal who hasn’t done anything yet to “do the right thing”, might begin to wonder whether or not the penitent has the intention to amend her life. That, of course, is another tale.
The moderation queue is ON.