ASK FATHER: What should I do if I hear a priest break the Seal of Confession?

From a reader in the combox under another post.  HERE


What is the proper procedure for a person to whom the Seal is broken? For example, folks who happen to hear those two Libville homilies?

The “Libville homilies” were two fictional examples of a priest directly violating the Seal and a priest indirectly violating the Seal.  HERE (same link as above)

The first thing is to take a deep breath or two and really think about what you heard.  Did you really hear a violation of the Seal or did you imagine it?  Are you certain that you understood what the priest said?

Secondly, think very carefully about how you can prove that the priest violated the Seal.

Third, double check to ascertain whether or not you know up from down.  As I have had the need to repeat these last few days, there are a lot of people out there who don’t know what they don’t know.  They think they know something, but in fact, they don’t know much.  The old adage is that, “The most dangerous swordsman in France is not the best swordsman in France, but the worst swordsman in France.”

If you were alone with the priest when he violated the Seal, it is your word against his.  Also, he cannot – should not – must not – say much in his own defense… ironically because of the Seal.   In fact, just about all he can says is, “I didn’t do that.  She is mistaken.  I can’t say more than that.”

If you were with other people, and the priest said what he said in front of others, then you have to check with them to see if they had the same impression as you, without, of course, trying to stir problems for that priest as your main motive, but rather out of concern for the Seal of confession.

If they, too, have the same sense that the Seal was violated, then find out if they are willing to do something about it, such as contact that priest’s bishop or superior.  They would have to be willing to put in writing what they know and even to be deposed for a canonical process.

If there are recordings of the priest doing this, they have to be provided.

Returning to the situation where you were alone with the priest when he did this, you should seek out that priest and tell him what you heard and what your impression was.  Again, he should not, must not, get into it with you.  Don’t ask him to, or expect him to.  Stop him if he tries to.  But you should strongly advise him that he should have recourse immediately to the Sacra Penitentieria Apostolica (SPA) in Rome through the intermediary of a confessor.  There is a procedure to follow in this, so as to protect the secrecy of the original penitent and content.  That’s for another post.  And I have written about it before here.

The priest, if he was in his right mind and he directly violated the Seal, more than likely incurred a latae sententiae excommunication.  Hence, he would be suspended a divinis.   If he gets himself to a confessor and starts the process with the SPA, there is a provision that he can function in the meantime.

The SPA, by the way, tries also to have a 24 hour turn time on correspondence.  They move fast.  So, the faster the priest has recourse, and submits his case to them through a confessor, the faster everything can be resolved.   The SPA would return a judgment on whether the priest truly did violate the Seal, what censure he incurred, and what to do next.

Once you have talked to the priest, it is out of your hands.

If you were with others, and others are involved to bringing it to the local bishop, then you will be told exactly what to do when the time comes.

In any of these cases, very careful and deep thought must be given to whether or not to push the issue.  You have to measure the extent of the harm done, the diffusion of the knowledge both of the content of the confession and who the penitent was, as well as the knowledge of the fact that it happened at all.  If those are very limited, then you might hold back and simply tell the priest to have recourse to the SPA.  Always ask yourself honestly: Cui bono?

The violation of the Seal is a really big problem.   However, even in the face of such a terrible delict, it is important to stay cool and not go “Inspector Javert” on the guy.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Elbereth says:

    Sorry to beat a dead horse, but I have a follow up question. Thanks to social distancing, our priest has moved confession from the confessional into the main body of the church (really a chapel) during Adoration. We are very grateful to have access to the sacrament at all these days, obviously, and he has a white noise box up next to screen and sits on one side of the screen. Unfortunately, it is a small chapel and it is hard not to hear what people say! Not only that, but you can hear the advice that the priest gives as well, so even if the penitent tries to speak extra quietly, there are no guarantees. So far I’ve prayed the rosary in my head with my hands over my ears and trust others to do the same. But does this violate the seal? Is it okay for penitents to be more vague in these circumstances?

    [First, if you overhear what another says, you must keep it secret, entirely to yourself. This is an obligation under law in the same canon that covers the Seal for confessors. Also, people don’t need to go into great detail. Say just enough important details to demonstrate if there were mitigating or aggravating factors. We need, as a Church, a lot of remedial catechesis about how to make a good confession. So, I am glad you brought this up. Make sure Father knows that people can hear.]

  2. Gaetano says:

    What recourse would a person have if a priest disclosed information about them that was obtained (and could only have been obtained) during Confession?

    Apart from informing the local bishop, is there any other procedure?

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  4. sewsnow says:

    Elbereth, a white noise box should be near those who shouldn’t be hearing, not by those who need to hear. It would be much more effective in preventing others from overhearing confessions if it were placed away from the priest and penitent and as close as possible to those waiting in line. Maybe you can suggest this to your priest.

  5. Hidden One says:

    This all makes sense to me.

    I am reminded of Hitchcock’s “I Confess”, although the Seal-related issue is somewhat different…

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