A case about violation of the Seal of Confession in the press

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. 

TwitterI 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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Ralph says:

    Oh, poor Fr. Verhasselt if he is in fact innocent. His name spread through the muck. What a terriable situation. Is it me, or does it seem like the bishops are quick to act on just the slightest hint of scandle? The notion of innocent until proven guilty is gone.

    Let me ask, assuming Father did violate the seal, what danger is there to wait on his suspension until after the investigation is concluded? It’s not as if he is going to attack a child. If it’s an issue of trusting him with the Seal during the investigation, ask him to schedual another priest for the parish confession times. It seems to me that a suspension is harsh for an investigative stage.

    I’ll be praying for him and for the accuser. Lets hope the truth prevails.

  2. Ralph says:

    A question for priests.

    Is it difficult for you to see members of your parish the same way after hearing a confession? Sometimes I feel like I’d rather confess to a “stranger” than my parish priest so that I don’t have to face him later. I just wonder if priests feel the same way.

  3. Ralph,

    The reason that this “suspension” cannot be deferred is that a priest who violates the seal is automatically excommunicated (cannot perform any sacraments) with absolution reserved to the Holy See. Thus a decision as to whether the seal was violated and any absolution has to wait for a decision from Rome. The bishop essentially had little choice but to remove him.

  4. Ralph says:

    Fr Augustine,

    Thanks for that clarification. That makes sense. What a terriable position for both the priest and bishop to be in! My heart breaks for both men.

    The Bishop just got added to my prayer list.

  5. Ralph: From my own experience (seven years as a priest) I can tell you that whatever sins I hear in confession do not affect my relationship with the people confessing them outside the confessional. It must be the grace of the Sacraments of Holy Orders and Penance. In my mind, people who confess even very serious sins deserve credit for coming to confession; so many who really need our Lord’s forgiveness and healing do not. I try to encourage and give support when someone might confess very serious sins that have been a source of great guilt and heaviness of heart; “the angels rejoice” at their confession, I tell them.
    I also want to ask for prayers for Archbishop Listecki, who is in a really difficult situation here, as well as dealing with all kinds of other problems in Milwaukee. He is a good bishop, a man of God, who was our diocesan bishop for five years and has spoken out, several times, for the unborn, for the rights of the Church and for proper Christian morality. May the Lord bless him, give him every grace, and protect him from his enemies. Amen.

  6. Ralph: Is it difficult for you to see members of your parish the same way after hearing a confession?

    Not really. My experience is that I forget what I heard about 10 seconds after the confession and, since I normally only ever use a confessional with a barrier, a grate, I don’t usually know who people are anyway.

  7. deborah-anne says:

    I was perplexed about the 2001 letter from Card. Castillon and the case of Bishop Pican. This adds perspective. Thank you. I will offer prayers for all involved.

  8. Rob Cartusciello says:

    Ralph: I used to worry about the exact same thing. A priest assured me that he never remembers what a penitent has confessed.

    Other priests have candidly acknowledged that they have never suffered a moments trouble over anything they have heard in confession. They attribute this solely to the grace of the sacrament.

    I will also echo Fr. Z. I have never heard a priest critique or jeopardize the confidentiality of the confessional – even when said priests would criticize every other aspect of the Catholic faith. I would go so far as to say it was the one of the few things to which they had absolute fidelity.

  9. Bryan says:

    A good friend of mine (Msgr Michael Wrenn, may he rest in the arms of the Blessed Mother to whom he was devoted…), when I asked him about this (ie remembering afterwards) said that he viewed it as a grace granted by Holy Orders that, during sacramental confession the ‘accident’ of the priest was there, but it was Christ himself who was present and listening and forgiving the penitent.

    We celebrated the sacrament of penance many times during his life. And we remained friends for over 27 years. And never once did he EVER bring up ANY of the things I confessed during the sacrament (outside? Yah, I got hit over the head a few times…:))

    But, to him, the Seal was inviolate, as the good Fr. Z says.

  10. JonM says:

    I would definitely apply the concept of assuming innocence.

    A lot of things involving the Church have become news items. I’m therefore not shocked to hear about an accusation such as this.

    Whatever the investigation determines, this priest really needs us to offer prayers on his behalf.

  11. 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.

    Hence my question about the Cardinal Castrillon business: what am I missing? If the bishop came to know about the abuse under the sacramental seal, how could anybody else know that he learned it that way?

    Another problem this raises up is that most parishes no longer have traditional confessionals and this is something that needs to be dealt with because the new confessional rooms are just primed for this sort of abuse to take place. Simple modifications can be made of such rooms (such as cutting areas out of such rooms for booth portion person making a confession) to make them much safer for abuse cases.

    How about we just go back to the traditional confessionals? The priest and the penitent are in separate rooms, and the rooms are soundproofed — problem solved. I think the new “reconciliation rooms” that are designed for maximum exposure and minimum privacy constitute a direct assault on the Sacrament.

    I have to say that I have never worried about any priest violating the sacramental seal. There are priests I will refuse to go to confession to, because they are fountains of nutjobbery, or because they won’t follow the correct formula for absolution (and therefore leave me in doubt about whether I have been validly absolved). But I have never had a priest that I wouldn’t go to for fear of betrayal. I don’t think the Holy Spirit would let it happen.

  12. P.S. Since I don’t think the Holy Spirit would allow a priest to violate the sacramental seal, I am inclined to believe that this priest is innocent.

    I will go even farther. I think even if a priest were a Communist infiltrator, and had the intent to violate the seal, that the Holy Spirit would put the kibosh on it — just as He would put the kibosh on a Pope defining a heresy as dogma, even if the Pope had the intent to do so.

  13. Katharine B. says:

    This just makes me sick. Father Z, this is twice now this week that you have blogged on a topic so very close to my prayers.

    I am quite certain that the priest at my former parish divulged information from confession to a woman he referred me to for counseling. This confession was done in his office but the sacrament was invoked and I made certain that I verbally remarked on the seal.
    This is the reason I left this parish (went to the TLM and never looked back) and I have felt sick ever since, like I got bit by a snake.
    This priest is well loved and honored in my diocese… Oh God help me.

  14. marymartha says:

    It would be nice to think that the Holy Spirit would not allow a priest to violate the seal… but violations do happen.

    Priests are human and the Canon Law deals with this issue because it does happen. Very, very rarely – but it does happen.

    I unfortunately have firsthand experience of the fact that the seal can be broken. It happened to me, it was horrible and it was not really dealt with properly (in part my fault but I didn’t know that at the time).

    You are totally correct Father that it is a question of trust. It’s been 20 years and I am still a basket case when it comes to confession. Every time a someone states ‘No priest would ever violate the seal’ I tend to automatically question every other thing they say. Experience trumps platitudes every time.

    I pray that this story is just because of a misunderstanding and I will keep all involved in my prayers.

  15. Katharine B and marymartha: I am so sorry that this happened to you. The abuse of the Sacrament of Penance by violating the seal is no less harmful than any other kind; how absolutely horrid for both of you. My prayers and deep sympathy.
    Just know that this is an aberration; however hurtful and dehumanizing. God loves you with so much intensity. I pray you can find the trust and confidence in His Sacrament of forgiveness and healing again. Thank you for making this known.

  16. Helena Augusta says:

    “Hence my question about the Cardinal Castrillon business: what am I missing? If the bishop came to know about the abuse under the sacramental seal, how could anybody else know that he learned it that way?”

    As far as I can make out, the information that Bishop Pican heard of the abuse through confession comes from statements made by Cardinal Castrillon himself, so His Eminence is the man to ask, I guess. According to the Reuters report on the case, Pican admitted at trial that he had learned of the abuse in private conversation with Bissey, the offending priest.

  17. eulogos says:

    I had the experience of having a priest, when he had become angry at me over a totally unrelated matter, threaten to reveal something I had told him in confession, in such a way that it would be injurious to me and very injurious to another person.
    He said that because other people had discussed the same matter with him outside of confession he was free to do so. However the other people also went to him in confidentiality, although not sacramental. And they had only hearsay knowledge and suspicions so that he wouldn’t have had anything but rumors and gossip to reveal without using what he had heard in confession.

    He did not actually do this. Another priest told me that his threat was itself a violation of the seal. I don’t know if this is true. I know it was a wrong thing to do. This is many years ago now. The priest who did this went on to be a pastor and to teach in the seminary. At this point I think it would be just vindictive to report this. It did not keep me from going to confession again, just not to that priest. I just hope this hasn’t been typical of his behavior since.

    With this one exception, every priest I have ever confessed to, from the most liberal to the most conservative, has taken his role extremely seriously.

  18. eulogos: This is absolutely outrageous; I’m glad that you haven’t abandoned the Sacrament of Penance because of the behavior of this priest.
    I hope he didn’t teach the Sacrament of Penance or do a practicum for the seminarians.
    I don’t care how angry or involved a priest may be in terms of a penitent; he’s not there in his own name; he’s there to be Christ’s representative and when he says, “I absolve you…” it’s not in his name but in the name of the Lord Jesus.
    It sounds like this guy had “issues” and I’m sorry to hear that he was not confronted about his abysmal behavior; but hopefully, he has changed.

  19. Fr. Z.

    I think that since this thread has been opened, it would be helpful to the readers if you explained exactly what is under the seal of confession and what is actually necessary for a violation of the seal to occur (and so the lata sententia excommunication is incurred). Please do this in a posting formally on the blog. Rereading the combox posts will show why this might be helpful.

  20. Fr. Augustine: I concur. A very concise ‘summa’ of the whole issue of the “seal of confession” and its violation would do a world of good for us all. Thanks.

  21. Fr. Augustine Thompson: A good idea, to be sure. I, however, am on the road at the moment. If you wish to write a brief explanation and send it to me by email, I would review it and add it for the sake of the discussion and clarity.

  22. All: I do not want this to devolve into a string of tales about bad experiences.

  23. dcs says:

    A priest or bishop must not even make use of the knowledge he gains in the confession

    Dear Fr. Z, I believe that a priest can’t make use of the knowledge he gains from the Sacrament if it would be burdensome in any way to the penitent or if it caused the penitent to have any fear of the Sacrament. For example, he cannot act any differently toward the penitent. However, he could (for example) use the knowledge gained in confession to pray for the penitent. That would not be burdensome to the penitent at all.

  24. nzcatholic says:

    A Priest once told me that he cant even tell God what sins I have confessed. So praying for me with the intention of resolving a sinful habit would be breaking the seal wouldnt it? Im no canon lawyer just curious

  25. robtbrown says:

    I had a friend at college many years ago who was an accomplished chaser of women. He would always go to Confession (usually anonymously) to an older Irish priest, a good man, good guy, and really good pastor, who was also golf buddy. He told me that once he disguised his voice for Confession. After he had finished, the response came back, “Real fine, S, when are we going to play golf again?”

  26. MAJ Tony says:

    nzcatholic: A Priest once told me that he cant even tell God what sins I have confessed. So praying for me with the intention of resolving a sinful habit would be breaking the seal wouldnt it? Im no canon lawyer just curious.

    To me, that sounds like splitting hairs, since God obviously is omniscient, so we can’t tell Him anything he doesn’t already know. That example is probably used to illustrate the seriousness of the rule, though.

  27. Kathy C says:

    I stopped watching a really bad show, COLD CASE, when they solved a crime by sneaking in and looking at the notes that an Episcopalian priest kept on confessions. I’m sure Episcopalians keep the seal of the confession too. One more instance of malicious misleading content on a TV series.

  28. Allan S. says:

    OK, this thread and the stories are scaring the cr@p out of me. I had no idea this could even happen, and I’m going to cut back on going or try to evaluate the integrity of the priest involved somehow before confessing. My parish has no screens.

    This is awful.

  29. francisco says:

    nzcatholic: that priest’s comment seems pious but excessive to me. The basis of the priest’s power to forgive is that he is the delegate of Christ, an alter Christus by virtue of his Ordination, not his personal holiness or some priesthood he holds on his own. As such, Christ and in fact all three Persons of the Holy Trinity are directly implicated in Confession by the nature of the Sacrament. It is also worth remembering that all sins will be revealed at the General Judgment, so the Seal is temporary in that sense.

    Fr. Z: If a priest cannot use a penitent’s sins against him in any way, can he nonetheless insist that the penitent who is guilty of a grave crime under secular law turn himself in to the police as part of his penance, and forbid him absolution until this is done? The will to make amends is an essential part of contrition, so this seems at least possible to me.

  30. francisco says:

    Allan S: can you change parishes to one with screens? If not, can you visit other parishes at their regular Confession times, or make appointments for Confession with clergy at other parishes? I feel for you. Face to face confessionals are one of the stupidest things to come out of the post-conciliar era.

    (Sorry for the double post, I forgot about Allan’s comment.)

  31. puma19 says:

    In an indirect relation to this discussion I have a question about an archbishop.
    No one seems to bring this matter up.
    If in the recent days when bishops seem to be coming out and resigning, a la Germany, Belgium and Ireland (to give three examples), why is it that on this whole sexuality issue that is scandalising the Church, the former archbishop of Milwaukee, Weakland, is allowed to attend the installation of his successor (+1) recently at the celebration of the eucharist in front of the whole diocese?

    This is the man (priest and bishop) who has admitted to having an affair with a man and then allegedly paying a huge of amount of money for silence on the issue and then also in his book (reportedly) having other male-affairs while he was a priest.

    How can this be possible that he can do this in the public domain of a church, when others have to leave by the backdoor and disappear or have criminal action brought against them?
    Does being an archbishop give added priviliges that priests do not have? Is it because his gay affair was with a grown adult and not children?

    Can anyone answer these questions, on what looks to me like double standards.
    Just asking, and this is not a confessional matter – it’s all been in the public domain and Weakland has confirmed it all.
    Such a sad mess.

  32. MichaelJ says:

    I had always assumed, seemingly incorrectly, that a Priest could indirectly, hypothetically, discuss my confession with fellow Priests. Is it not permissible for a junior Priest (if that is the correct term) to ask advice from a senior Priest about how to best administer the Sacrament? Could he not ask “I once had a penitent who confessed X. How should I have handled it?”

  33. francisco says:

    MichaelJ: A priest can discuss a confession in hypothetical terms, or even concrete ones provided he does not give away the identity of the penitent, explicitly (“John Doe cheats on his wife”) or implicitly in such a way that the people whom he is discussing the matter with could guess the penitent’s identity. Hence, hypothetical discussions cannot be used as a loophole/workaround to break the seal and get away with it on a technicality (like some people try to do by selling reliquaries that happen to have relics in them and then making the relics a “gift to you”, despite that fact that the price of the reliquary is not what it would be if it was empty and being sold strictly for it’s aesthetic or historical value); but they can be used without sin for various purposes (forming confessors, comforting upset penitents [“You think you’re the worst sinner alive? I’ve heard worse, let me tell you…”]), etc.

    For example, see this volume of the Casuist, and old magazine about practical moral theology:


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