ASK FATHER: During confession can a priest require a criminal to turn herself in?

seal of confessionFrom 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.

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  1. Scott W. says:

    Certain sectors of Australia have been after this bone for years and thankfully so far nothing has come of it. Sadly, anything is possible but one thing in our favor is that I think most people recognize the slippery slope. Logically there is no stopping point from demands to turn in child sex offenders discovered under the seal to demands to turn in any criminal act. Nor is there a logical stopping point preventing destroying other confidentiality arrangements such as doctor-patient, lawyer-client etc. At that point you’ve gone full police state and while I don’t doubt this is possible, I think most people balk at the prospect.

  2. Thorfinn says:

    Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling mysteries offer entertaining & enlightening examples of the differing roles of priest, primarily concerned with bringing erring souls to repentance & salvation, and law enforcement.

    Regarding the query, does this vary if it’s an excommunicable offense? [No.] Historically weren’t at least certain murderers (as an example of a civil and canonical offense) required to submit themselves to civil justice, or publicly repent? (Obviously canon & civil laws have changed over time & place and have sometimes crossed over in ways that may not be applicable today.)

  3. EoinOBolguidhir says:

    The City of Man will war against the City of God until the consumation of the age. While returning to anonymous confession through a screen will give some practical protection to our holy priests, it is inevitable that somewhere a priest will again be persecuted for putting the law of God and His Church above the State, and be made a confessor or martyr for it. The truth that it can’t be avoided is an ever present reason to give our priests honor, and for our priests to take their priesthoods as a commission in the war against the prince of this world.

    John Nepomuk pray for us.

    [Sad, but true.]

  4. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    All of what you have written makes sense, and so it provokes another question. Normally a priest assigns prayers as penances — and I think he does this for two reasons: to make the penance relatively easy to perform and remember; to make us talk to God, since the idiotic sins we’ve been confessing are often the result of having stopped talking to (or listening to) God. Here’s the question: could the penance itself be that the penitent turn herself in?

    [NO! And that is precisely the point of the explanation, above.]

  5. Fr Richard Duncan CO says:

    This proposal is naïve to the point of imbecility. In the first place, the issue of abuse arises very infrequently. I hear confessions every day in a busy, inner city church and must have heard many thousands of confessions since my ordination four and a half years ago. The issue of abuse has arisen just twice. In the second place, the anonymity and secrecy of the Catholic confessional means that it is one of the few forums in which perpetrators AND VICTIMS are willing to talk about their experiences. In such cases, the priest has a tremendous responsibility, not the least of which is not to make the situation which he is confronted with WORSE. Compromising the seal would do just that since it would make individuals less willing to raise the issue of abuse and thus drive the problem further underground. The proposal would therefore have precisely the opposite effect of that intended.


    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  6. msc says:

    This happened to someone I know. About six years ago he went to confess a serious crime (for which I believe he was had seriously diminished responsibility) and the priest withheld absolution, telling him he should go to the police. I am very close to this person — the only person who knows what happened — and he was so distressed over this that he told me about it. He has never tried to confess it again since and is genuinely afraid of dying without being forgiven.

    [Precisely one of the points I made in the post.]

  7. Legisperitus says:

    This question reminds me of the 1939 movie “Full Confession,” in which Victor McLaglen plays a man named McGinnis who confesses to a priest that he committed a homicide for which an innocent man has been sentenced to death. McGinnis’ conscience bothers him and he goes to the priest about it again, outside of confession. The priest makes a point of asking McGinnis if he is giving him permission for the two of them to talk about the matter that was discussed in confession. Once he says yes, the priest spends most of the rest of the movie exhorting McLaglen to turn himself in, because he (the priest) still can’t tell anyone.

    Not the greatest movie ever, but a respectful Old Hollywood treatment of the Seal of Confession.

  8. Padre Gabriel says:

    Regarding the last paragraph, can a priest use the knowledge obtained in the previous confessions of Mrs. XYZ to determine the kind of penance he will impose on her? I was taught that the seal is absolute without qualifications. Fr. Z, I would appreciate your input.

  9. No, no, no (–i.e., to the original idea, not your reply)!

    This is one of those ideas that on first blush, might have some appeal, but upon further thought, it’s totally wrong.

    As I see it, in this sacrament, the essential task of the priest is to facilitate the reconciliation of the penitent to God. He is helping a sinner seek God’s mercy, and communicating efficaciously the mercy of God to the penitent. While there is a sense in which the priest is acting as a judge, we have to be very careful with this. For one, the penitent is the one with access to all the facts, not the priest. Indeed, the Church does not empower the priest to seek all the facts. The confessional is not a witness stand; and even if it is, the priest is not the prosecutor.

    Further, it seems to me the Church pretty consistently gives the benefit of the doubt to the penitent. After all, the priest is not the final judge, and the judgment to give absolution is not infallible. God is not mocked.

  10. Scott W. says:

    Here’s my extreme solution should this dystopian legislation pass:

    Face-to-face confession on moratorium. Instead a return to old-school anonymous confessional booths. The wrinkle is that the priest’s side locks only from the outside. During scheduled confession time the priest leaves his cell-phone or other comm devices in his office, enters the booth and a trusted parish member locks him in, takes the only key and leaves the church grounds and doesn’t come back until at least a half an hour after confession is over and lets the priest out.

    Now the priest is unable to provide any useful evidence even if he wanted to.

    A strange arrangement I’ll grant, but so are the times.

    [Ummmm… no.]

  11. Cicero_NOLA says:

    My wife and I just watched a Father Brown (BBC production with Mark Williams in the title role) in which someone tells the priest during confession that the Bishop will be shoot the next morning. Fr Brown never communicates anything that occurred in the confessional to anyone else, but he does take positive action to prevent the killing of the Bishop. It sounds like the fictional scenario accords with Canon Law. Later, though, he does exactly this and tells the killer that confession to the police is also required to “show God” true penitence. I guess that doesn’t pass the sniff test.

  12. The Masked Chicken says:

    Francis Sullivan has a masters in theology from Loyola University in the U. S. He should know better.

    Also, who cares what the Royal Commission thinks? When did they become a Catholic body?

    The Chicken

  13. Scott W. says:

    Ummmm… no

    Would you be willing to elaborate? Wouldn’t you agree that Bishops should at least prepare a plan in case such legislation passes? What would that look like in practical terms? It seems the “priest’s conscience” card that seems to be what is being said is a disaster waiting to happen because all you need is a priest or two to finger someone and BAM! No one who most needs the Sacrament will approach because it is lottery with too much risk.

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