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Dumping On The Confessional

March 20, 2023 Frontpage No Comments


Several years ago, I served as chaplain at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. The interesting thing about the center – besides that it was located in the county jail — was that all involved had some problems with the law outside of their addictions. I would usually spend parts of three days a week there, one of them just meeting those newly arrived.
Most of our “clients” were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt and actually listened to what I said. Naturally many were churchless and needed help finding a denomination that suited them and I tried to help them find one. Others already had a background in some congregation and I tried to help them get to its services on Sundays. And, of course, there were a number who were Catholic and I would arrange for them to be picked up for Sunday Mass.
However, there were a few who were baptized Catholics who had fallen away from the faith. Often, they would come to me and ask how they could return to the Church. Go to Confession, I would tell them, but don’t wait in the Confession line on Sunday morning, let me make an appointment with a priest and do it privately, without being rushed, in his office.
My routine was simple: I would make the appointment and go to the jail, pick up the individual, take him or her to the priest’s office and transport them back to the jail afterwards. It may sound routine, but with each trip I noticed a miracle was taking place right before my eyes. The person I took back to the jail was not the same person that I took to the priest: They had been changed, their life had a new meaning, those who had never been confirmed enrolled in our RCIA program to become confirmed, and most, when released from the program continued their spiritual journey within the Catholic Church.
I saw firsthand how that sacrament could change people’s lives and why Jesus gave His apostles the power to forgive sins.
That is why I was saddened this week to read that two states — and possibly others — had bills filed in their legislatures to eliminate the civil protection priests have which protects the confidentiality of the communication that takes place in the confessional. In Canon Law we call that the Seal of the Confessional, in civil law it is called the priest-penitent privilege.
The Democrats in Delaware and Vermont who are supporting this claim it is in reaction to the child abuse crisis. Teachers, they claim, doctors, the clergy, and many others are mandatory reporters, that is, they are required to notify the authorities if they see or suspect a child is being abused. That, of course, is good. All of those listed often are able to make observations that others cannot.
But the bills in Delaware and Vermont go further: They require a priest who hears a sacramental Confession to report what they hear concerning child abuse, thus rendering the seal of the confessional null and void. It is, according to the sponsors, necessary to remove that protection from the clergy to ensure that those so involved can pay the price in court.
Delaware’s legislature gave this synopsis of its bill:
“This Act abrogates the privilege between priest and penitent in a sacramental confession relating to child abuse and neglect. It requires priests to report child abuse and neglect or to give or accept evidence in a judicial proceeding relating to child abuse or neglect.”
Now no one in either legislative body has suggested eliminating the attorney-client privilege. That would be bound to reap a harvest of criminals who said the wrong thing to their attorney. As it stands now, a client could walk into my office, give me a gun and tell me where the body is buried and that information remains with the client and me alone and I could be disbarred if I breach that confidence.
But a penitent who seeks the consolation of the Church to cleanse his soul for eternity would not be accorded the same privilege as a hardened criminal who is only trying to save himself from jail. Think maybe this shows a lack of concern for the spiritual well-being of those they govern? Or, perhaps, an animus against the Catholic Church?
I do know that one of the concerns that those whom I took from the jail to Confession was “would the priest tell anyone?” Of course, the answer is a firm no; the priest would go to jail first. And if he did violate that confidentiality, he would suffer automatic excommunication which could only be reversed by the Pope himself.
But jail is the threat that the Dems in those two states are proposing, for if a priest fails a court order to reveal what was told to him in the confessional he could be held in contempt and jailed. Nice knowing ya, Father, enjoy your bread and water.
The priest-penitent privilege has a long history in the United States. The first case I found was in New York in 1813, People v. Philips, in which a priest, Fr. Anthony Kohlmann, was asked to divulge the contents of a Confession in a case involving a jewelry theft. The priest asked to be excused from testifying, citing the confidentiality of the confessional. Attorneys made the argument that requiring the priest to do so would not only violate common law precedents but the state constitution as well.
The court, holding that “religion is an affair between God and man, not between man and man” ruled that requiring the priest to testify would also violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Numerous cases have followed suit and states have added this privilege to its statutory codes and expanded it to include all clergy acting with a religious purpose.
One of the last cases on the issue, which I covered back in 2015 on my radio program, came from Louisiana where a priest from the Diocese of Baton Rouge was subpoenaed, and later sued for refusal to reveal the topic of a Confession of a young girl who allegedly told the priest about abuse from a parishioner. Her parents were suing the estate of the parishioner for the abuse and the priest for failure to report it.
Naturally the priest refused and the case went up and down the judicial chain making a stop at the Supreme Court which sent the case back down for further hearings. The trick in this case was that the girl, now an adult, wanted to waive the privilege so the priest could testify.
Now in civil law, if the guy who gave me the gun and directed me to the burial place waived attorney-client privilege I would have to testify, since that privilege — as most others are — was established to protect the client, not the attorney. Thus, you would think that the girl could waive it and force the priest to testify.
Not so. Under Canon Law the seal cannot be waived by the penitent. In fact, the priest is not even allowed to confirm the identity of the individual; nor can he ask the penitent about it outside of the confessional afterwards. Ultimately in Louisiana the diocese and the priest were dismissed from the case.
Anyway, leave it to politicians who do not appreciate or understand it to try to gum up the works. May God enlighten them: If not, I’m sure a court will.

  • + + (You can reach Mike at: and listen to him every weekend on Faith On Trial or podcast at
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