ASK FATHER: Overhearing someone else’s confession and revealing what you heard

seal of confessionFrom 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.



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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  1. APX says:

    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.

    The priest in question has basically done all he could do, and it’s up to the penitents to follow the rules. He instructed his penitents to whisper, has told those waiting to go to confession to line up at the front of the church and posted a sign indicating that as well, and then just to make sure no one hears the whispering, turned the blower on the old pneumatic pipe organ (the blower is much louder than your typical modern pipe organ). Since it’s not a closed -in soundproofed confessional, if someone comes within a short distance and sits down as close as possible to it, there’s not much anyone can do to prevent that person from overhearing. People should just respect other people’s privacy and not hang around the confessional.

  2. iamlucky13 says:

    Regarding ensuring the confessional is reasonably sound dampened:

    I have yet to experience a back to back confessional (penitent on either side of the priest, one confessing, the other waiting behind a small door that covers the screen) that is reasonably sound dampened.

    I’ve tried waiting until the person confessing finishes before entering the opposite confessional, but this sometimes seems to irritate people waiting behind me. So now I instead just plug my ears, because it’s the only way I can avoid overhearing. And I avoid being in line either ahead of or behind anybody I know, just to spare us both some of the concern.

    Unfortunately, one time I could see it dawn on a young man ahead of me, not from the parish I suppose, that there were two people confessing to the same priest. I was considering explaining the door over the screen and also that I was willing to wait outside until he was done if he preferred, but before I did, he muttered, “you’ve got to be kidding me,” and walked out of the church.

    Really unfortunate result.

    I know it can help speed up the line, but I hope priests will be aware that if they have this sort of confessional, anything they can do to improve the sound dampening will be deeply appreciated.

  3. Fallibilissimo says:

    Wow, if someone overheard something and then had he total lack of respect to then talk about it to others…well that’s just plain nasty.

    I really hope that’s not what happened and is all attributable to a natural sense of being overly self-conscious after a secret of confession was known by another.

    Holy Mother Church was mighty wise to apply the “seal of the confessional”, not just for the penitent but for all of our sanity.

    Could you imagine if it were public? “Hey Padre, I called Joe who sits in the third pew by the column a total -blank- and said his wife looks funny”…real awkward after Mass discussion.

  4. Adaquano says:

    I have been to a church where it depends if people are using both sides of the confessional, but have never had the problem of overhearing the other penitent. I have heard the priest say a few things but usually it is regarding the form, so nothing to give anything away.

    I do remember once when on a retreat in high school another one of the students failed to close the door tightly and being that he was a loud speaker you could hear part of his confession, thankfully someone shut the door.

    There are also wonderful white noise machines that a retreat center I go to has that really block anything the priest or the penitent are saying.

    I did have an experience at my parish during Advent where they had 4 priests at a penance service but only two confessionals (well actually the Church has 8 but only two remain as confessionals). So the other two priests sat in pews and heard confessions and I went to one of the them because the lines were shorter. The priest and I were able to speak clearly to each other, without being too loud, the main thing I tried to focus on is that it was me and the Lord and no one else.

  5. bobbird says:

    I once had a VERY LOUD penitent ahead of me in a parish I was not a member of. It went on and on and on and on. I was embarrassed, and couldn’t believe that the priest did not caution the penitent. I had to “flex” and scratch my ear flaps for an interminable 10 minutes, so that I wouldn’t hear. The church was big and I am sure the confession could be heard throughout. I told the priest when I finally entered, and he said, “Oh, that’s just Mrs. X and we are used to her.” I said, “Well, I’m not, and I think you ought to find a way to make her confession inaudible.” My wife, in our own parish, plays the organ softly. It helps big time. I have also had to ask people to move away from the confessional when I enter it. When they said, “Oh, it’s OK,” I said, “No, not for me. Please move further away.”

    They did.

  6. Elizabeth M says:

    I’ve been in plenty of circumstances where it would be easy to hear what was said in confession, and times when I could hear voices but mostly mumbling. Any time I feel like I’d accidentally overhear I would start to lightly tap my shoe on the floor or pray or tap my fingernails together to create a distracting noise. It’s probably distracting to the person in line behind me but I’d rather do that than hear something I’m not supposed to.

    It’s not always the fault of the priest if the person in line can hear. There are people who naturally or nervously raise their voice while in the box. They don’t realize it. All of us need to work together to protect one another.

  7. Nan says:

    I go to that sort of confessional sometimes. It was really weird the first time, but that was partly because another priest arrived and the lines rearranged. I went to the new line not understanding the migratory path so went to the end of the line. The guy in front of me told me in no uncertain terms that I would stand in front of him. Apparently you keep your place despite shifting lines.

    Last time there were two penitents when I arrived and by the time the first penitent left, there was a guy in the line on that side. He motioned me over to the confessional. I didn’t bother protesting.

    Despite my description of the anonymous church basement with curtains and whispering, it’s difficult to remember to whisper.

    It’s a well behaved parish and people stand far enough away not to hear anything and father admonishes the loud. I can hear sound but that’s all.

  8. Hidden One says:

    I have actually had to explain to priests who lived at a parish and heard confessions there weekly that their fancy confessional at the back of their church was not remotely soundproof.

    Priests, wherever you are, whatever parish you are stationed in, please check. If you think or even know your confessional is reasonably soundproof… check anyway. Please.

  9. Elizium23 says:

    Our pastor has white noise machines which are installed next to the Confessionals and the priests’ offices. At any time when these areas are occupied, the white noise is ON. If Mass begins and Confessions are still being heard (not an infrequent occurrence) he will turn the machine off so that the Mass can be heard.

    Father takes confidentiality seriously and is always aware of people lingering near conversations, speakerphones, and other things that may compromise privacy.

    I understand that by an act of piety, those passing by confessionals always place a hand over the ear as a reminder to themselves and others that something secret is going on here. I say this should be taught by catechists.

  10. Matt R says:

    I’ve actually never been sufficiently bothered by a confessional with access on both sides. Now, in one parish, they were found to be unsuitable for these reasons, but I’m all for them. They’re faster.

    Violation of the internal forum is something which would make me incredibly angry.

  11. Jeannie_C says:

    In a former parish individual confessions were being heard by a number of priests stationed around the perimeter of the worship area following a Reconciliation Mass. Unfortunately one of the priests had left his clip-on mike turned on, so we, the throng of sinners awaiting our turn to confess heard the content of one penitent’s confession before someone rushed up to inform the priest of the situation. I’m guessing this is a very rare occurrence, but with modern technology, including live-streaming capability and strategically positioned microphones I’m sure our experience was not an isolated one. It was both embarrassing and humbling (as their sins were similar to some of mine) to overhear the confession, and something I knew without a doubt could not be repeated. I confess in the little booth, as claustrophobic as it is so as to avoid the above situation myself. As Fr. Z rightly states, don’t allow anything to prevent you from celebrating this Sacrament.

  12. Mike says:

    One parish I go to for confession now and then has one a week a priest every hour on the hour in the confessional plus exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. For the few minutes each when confessions are heard, they pipe in some Gregoria chant. Presto!

  13. Ages says:

    I’ve been to a number of Eastern parishes where, during confession time, a reader will read from the Psalter in a sort of loud monotone voice. This has the benefit of drowning out the confession, as well as edifying those waiting in line. If there’s not a dedicated reader, the penitents will take turns reading during one another’s confessions, which always struck me as a very kind gesture.

    Of course, people also try to stay well away from the place where the priest is standing. Ultimately though, it is up to people to practice the Golden Rule. Learn from the sons of Noah—don’t expose the sins of others. Each person will answer for himself, and if this person is doing so in confession, it’s no business of anyone else.

  14. sea the stars says:

    There is also the related problem of having a priest who is old and very deaf so that he invariably tells you to speak more loudly. Then, not aware of just how deaf he actually is, he proceeds to discuss your sins at the top of his voice.

  15. Scott W. says:

    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

    If it’s only a strong impression I recommended letting it go so as not to torture yourself.

  16. The Egyptian says:
    from “Bless Me Father” one of my favorite britcoms, seemed appropriate, enjoy, it gets good as it goes on

  17. aquinasadmirer says:

    Thankfully, the confessional at our parish is lined with sound dampening carpet, and has a white noise generator: a bathroom fan. When the priest opens the door behind the screen, that side’s fan shuts off. So, when I’m in the box waiting my turn, I only hear the fan. After the confession, the priest closes the door behind the screen and the fan turns on again. I’ve never overheard much of anything, either the priest or the other penitent. I’m grateful for this so I can focus on my sins, and not others’.

  18. Thorfinn says:

    We know an acoustical engineer who has offered to recommend/design modifications to local church confessionals to improve sound insulation (no takers so far). It seems like that is the kind of thing where parishes could take advantage of the talents of parishioners…

  19. iamlucky13 says:

    One more anecdote from me that I remembered, and a good solution.

    At a parish with an individual confessional adjacent to their adoration chapel, a young woman ahead of me gave her confession so loudly that even though the confessional is reasonably built, I actually had to leave the chapel.

    The new pastor there keeps a small CD player handy and has chant of common prayers played in the chapel whenever he is hearing confessions. I find this a much nicer solution than white noise. If there’s anything to distract me from my examination or penance, it’s the opportunity to brush up on my Latin prayers.

  20. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    My hobbyhorse:

    Confessionals that force people to kneel if they want use the grille. Many people who cannot kneel stay away from Confession because only those who go face-to-face are provided with a chair.

    BTW: Face-to-Face Confession was, I am convinced, always intended to annihilate the sacrament. It should be abolished.

  21. Gerard Plourde says:

    That the Seal of the Confessional is binding on all who hear what is being said is (or should be) common knowledge. And while the person who overhears and breaks the Seal may not be subject to excommunication for the reason stated in the post (i.e. lack of awareness that the matter overheard is a sin), the act of sharing what one has heard very likely constitutes the sin of gossip.


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