Fr. John's Letter Archives

Enjoy re-reading Fr. John's weekly bulletin letters for the past year.

Absolute means Absolute

09-07-2014Fr. John LettersFr. John

Part of the fall-out from the sexual abuse cases that plagued the Church was that many jurisdictions tried to include in the mandatory reporting requirements any real or suspected abuse heard during the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Debate about this was pretty intense in Ireland and Australia but never got to the level of legislation. One of the reasons the issue never really got traction is that it is a rarity for a victim of sexual abuse to make the claim that they reported the abuse allegation while making a sacramental confession.

But now one such case has arisen in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The victim of the abuse told authorities that a Church employee abused her and that she revealed this to her parish priest during a confession. The local prosecutor has subpoenaed the priest to testify as to whether or not he heard the girl’s confession and if so did she reveal the abuse to him as she claimed and what he said or did about it. The priest has refused to testify as this would violate the seal of confession and the issue is on Appeal to the US Supreme Court.

Obviously for us this is a clear First Amendment issue about the free exercise of religion. The confidentiality of the sacrament of Reconciliation is absolute in the Roman Catholic tradition and has been for centuries. A priest can reveal nothing he has heard within a confession, nor can he act upon what he has heard (even if the penitent tells the priest he is leaving a bomb in the confessional that will explode in one minute the priest can take no action based on that information), nor can he disclose the identity of anyone whose confession he has heard even if the penitent gives the priest permission to do so.  It is important to remember that the priest cannot insist that the penitent do anything that would cause him or her to reveal publicly their sins. He can suggest but not make it a condition of absolution. There are no exceptions to the rule and violators incur excommunication that can only be lifted by the Pope himself. Traditionally courts have respected the absolute nature of the confessional or sacred communications between religious ministers and their members and in cases where they did not priests have been jailed and even executed for their refusal to violate the seal of confession.

The reason for such a high standard is that mortal sin jeopardizes a person’s salvation and through sacramental confession that sin is forgiven (remember Jesus’ words: “Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven”) and the safety of the confessional provides the environment for a sinner to freely confess their sins and be forgiven. Now that does not mean that those same sins will not have consequences, require amends in this world or in the next. But it does mean that the sinner can begin a new way of life and cause no further harm if they are repentant. For the Church the salvation of a person’s soul is of the highest order and that is why the requirements for the priest hearing confessions are so stringent and unbending.

In light of the above case, I will tell you that when I as a priest hearing confessions hear things like unreported abuse or exculpatory evidence for a third party or information that if acted upon can prevent harm to others, and knowing I can do nothing about it, is like a sword going through my heart. I’m not always sure why God wants some of us priests to carry such a burden except that it aids in a person’s eternal salvation. I for sure beg God to make this information come out some other way for the good of all involved. But that is God’s business and not mine.

I have no doubt that the US Supreme Court will uphold the confidentiality of the confessional and if it should not, I would still maintain the sacramental seal and accept the consequences. But I do pray that the person who made the accusation of abuse, if she was abused finds justice and healing.

In the meantime, don’t forget to use the Sacrament of Reconciliation and when you do know that you have great freedom to unburden your soul. And don’t forget to pray for the priests who hear your confession.

Love, Fr. John B.

P.S. We welcome Deacon James Carabajal, his wife and 5 children who recently relocated from Albuquerque to the Phoenix area. Bishop Olmsted has formally assigned Deacon James to Mt. Carmel and for that I am most grateful!