In 2011, I wrote the following article. Now that the "Seal of the Confessional" is again being challenged -- this time in Australia, here is an edited version of the same article which has consistently been one of the most read pieces on this blog:
The furor in Ireland [and now Australia] over the mishandling of child abuse cases has caused the Irish government to propose legislation that would break "the seal of the confessional" i.e. the absolute requirement that priests not reveal what is confessed to them in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance).
These secular authorities and others with prejudice against the Catholic Church are now using this issue to undermine a healing sacrament so necessary in our culture.
Without for a moment suggesting that any abuse of children should not be taken with the utmost seriousness (and it now appears that abuse under the Irish secular social services was equally to blame) a challenge to confidentiality in the confessional has profound implications for the restricting of help for the very people who have been abused as well as undermining the healing effects of sacramental ministry for those who have gravely offended.
The nature of the Sacrament of Reconciliation for Catholics is that we confess to God our sins with the assurance that with true contrition and the willingness to make reparation we will be forgiven and so begin again on the path of healing for ourselves and others.
Any suggestion that a Catholic can simply confess a grievous sin, have a priest pronounce words of absolution (with the priest bound not to tell the police anything) and then walk away forgiven is totally contrary to the teaching of the Church.
To begin with, what motive other than a sense of guilt for sin would take a child molester (or any other sinner) to Confession? The truly hardened sinner either does not think himself guilty or does not care. The one who goes to Confession is seeking God. The priest acts as the agent of God who is both just and merciful. There is hope then that through the sacrament the individual sinner as well as those harmed may be helped to find healing.
Absolution which is the pronouncing of God's forgiveness through the ministry of the Church in the Confessional is contingent upon true contrition i.e. real sorrow for sin or at least attrition (imperfect contrition) which the priest may not be aware of. True or technically 'perfect' contrition is known only to God and to the penitent. Along with contrition, the priest looks for a willingness to do penance for any serious sin i.e. make restitution or some other act which expresses the penitent’s contrition or attrition. All of this precedes the priest’s pronouncing the assurance of God’s forgiveness through the sacrament and so absolving the penitent.
Once the individual penitent has demonstrated and the priest is morally certain of contrition or attrition then absolution is pronounced by the priest with both justice and mercy having been served in the Confessional.Though absolved of mortal or serious sin, the effects of the sin may remain e.g. a murdered person and their family continue to suffer from the effects of murder. Children may not be provided for as a result, etc. So the need for prayer and acts of faith and charity are necessary even following absolution.
These actions of faith may continue after death as we pray for the dead in purgatory where the ongoing effects of sin are purged as the forgiven sinner's soul is cleansed on the path to heaven. In addition, the penitent may participate in the grace of obtaining Indulgences for himself or for others. This often misunderstood avenue to grace is directed at mitigating the effects of forgiven sins that cannot be dealt with through simple acts of restitution or apology.
For example, when people have died as a result of or following particular sinful acts the effects of these sins may be mitigated by certain prayers and acts prescribed by the Church. Plenary or full indulgences are directed not at the forgiveness of sin which takes place through absolution, but are directed to mitigating the ongoing effects of sin. Indulgences may not be purchased or obtained by any means other than prayer and acts of faith.
In the case of child abuse, restitution involves the penitent sinner bringing the matter to the authorities, taking the consequences of his or her action and entering into incarceration, treatment or whatever is offered by the law in each particular case.
The notion that a person would confess a mortal sin (murder, adultery, incest, child abuse) and hold the priest hostage to silence stretches the bounds of credibility and shows little understanding of actual sacramental practice.
Despite Hollywood movies like Hitchcock's "I Confess" with Montgomery Clift, in which a priest is held hostage to the secret of a demented criminal, there is no evidence to indicate that breaking the seal of the confessional would do anything to prevent the heinous crime of child abuse (or any other sin) nor would such legal interference with the sacrament bring more cases to the attention of the authorities.
In fact, just the opposite is true; removal of confidentiality would hinder the opportunity for penitent offenders to seek spiritual counsel and so bring their cases to light. This is not to mention the negative effects for millions of ordinary sinners, like you and me, who might hesitate to go to the confessional for fear of exposure.
As awful as child abuse is, state interference in the Sacrament of Penance requiring priests to reveal the content of confessions would completely undermine the sacrament while producing just the opposite of the desired result. There would be fewer people confessing these crimes in the confessional i.e. perpetrators who might then be counseled to go to the authorities. They would simply not be going to Confession and so priests would not be able to encourage them to reveal information to authorities. Breaching the seal would mean that many people who might confess would not be reconciled to the Lord and the community of faith.
With the removal of the seal of the confessional, those burdened by guilt for any other sin would also fear that they could be exposed and so would avoid potential healing through the ministry of a priest who holds each sinner's soul dear and who prays and acts for redemption by requiring an expression of penance and restitution as the response to forgiveness of a truly contrite person.
Breaking the seal of the Confessional is actually akin to having a father tell a child that any time he or she does something wrong and comes for advice, it might be told in detail to others. Yes, in certain circumstances a father will counsel that matters need to be shared by the child with others, but infinite damage is done to a relationship when confidence is broken between parent and child.
Many offenders without confidential advice would be left in their silence without a trusted advisor and so might well do nothing to deal with the situation or even move more deeply into sin, avoidance and denial. Other offenders who do not care or do not consider themselves responsible will not seek a confessor in any case. The net result would be that fewer offenders would be uncovered and more souls: the abused, the abusers, and others would be left without an opportunity for healing.
When there is a car accident with people injured on the scene, we don’t ask who caused the accident before we render first aid. Hindering the healing ministry of the Church with a law against the seal of the confessional would allow both the innocent and the guilty to suffer more. Such a removal of confidentiality would only hinder the chance of saving those wounded in the horrible circumstances of child abuse.