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Seal of confession under scrutiny


The release of the report by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on the Australian criminal justice system, which included a recommendation on information of abuse revealed in religious confessions, has renewed debate on the seal of confession.

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The Southern Cross asked the Very Rev Professor Ian B Waters, senior lecturer in moral theology and canon law with the Catholic Theological College in Melbourne to clarify some of the issues raised in the media and in the Royal Commission on the seal.

Why is the seal of confession so important?

Because the Church believes the priest is merely the channel between God and the penitent.  The sins are confessed to God via the priest; the information channelled via the priest belongs to God;  it is not the priest’s information to reveal.

Do you think child sexual abuse could be an exception?    

The seal covers the sin of the penitent confessed by the penitent in an administration of the sacrament of penance.  That can never be revealed;  no exception.  However, the priest could obtain the information from another source:   either from the abused child revealing the sin perpetrated on him by another (that is NOT the sin of the child confessed in the sacrament);   or the penitent-sinner could speak to the priest outside the administration of the sacrament.  In neither scenario does the seal come into play.

Does to seal apply if the victim speaks of the abuse?

Clearly NO, whether the victim mentions the sin of another in the sacrament of penance, or outside the sacrament of penance.

Is there the seal if no absolution is given?

Scenario one –  absolution was not given because absolution was not sought because the confessional (a place) was used for mere counselling, not for an administration of the sacrament of penance ….  clearly NO seal.

Scenario two:  absolution was sought in an administration of the sacrament but was refused by the priest because the priest judged that the penitent was not properly disposed or truly penitent …  the seal applies because it was about the confessed sin of the sinner.

Is the seal a contributing factor to abuse or a furphy?

Personally, I believe that it is a furphy.   My opinion is that most paedophiles regard themselves as sinless, and do not confess (they are seriously psychologically disturbed or abnormal).  Priests are aware of prevalent sins in the community and are generally in agreement that this is not a prevalent or frequently occurring matter confessed.

Is there scope for compromise?

I would not call it compromise. But there needs to be clear education of bishops, priests, and people of what is under the seal (merely the confessed sins of a penitent during an administration of the sacrament), and NOT revelations of a child about what happened to him or her perpetrated by another, or what was said in a mere counselling session or confidential conversation that was not an administration of the sacrament.

It must also be stressed that it is the seal of the sacrament of ‘penance’ (the administration of a sacrament), and not the seal of the ‘confessional’ (a place where the sacrament is usually celebrated; but can be used for other purposes, such as private conversations).


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