MELBOURNE – The words shared between a penitent sinner and a priest under the seal of the sacrament of confession are confidential. The seal of confession is so important that priests are not allowed to reveal what has been shared with them in the confessional, even if they’re threatened with death. If a priest breaks the seal of confession, it would lead to latae sententiae excommunication – which can only be lifted by the pope.
Archbishop Denis Hart, the Archbishop of Melbourne, said this week that he would rather go to jail than obey a proposed law in Australia that would force priests to reveal what was said to them in the sacrament of confession.
His comments came in response to a report that was recently released by Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, recommending a reformation of the way sexual abuse cases are reported. If the government accepts the commission’s recommendations, it would affect the information that is given in the sacrament of confession.
“The laws in our country and in many other countries recognize the special nature of confession as part of the freedom of religion, which has to be respected,” Archbishop Hart said in an interview with an Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
One of the eighty-five recommendations would require priests who had heard someone confess child sexual abuse during the sacrament of confession to report the penitent to the authorities. one of which would require priests who hear about sexual abuse in the confessional to report it to the authorities.
“There should be no excuse, protection nor privilege in relation to religious confessions,” the report read. “We heard evidence that perpetrators who confessed to sexually abusing children went on to reoffend and seek forgiveness again.”
In the interview with ABC radio 774 in Melbourne, Archbishop Hart emphasized that the Catholic Church could not agree with the recommended law. “I believe that this is an absolutely sacrosanct communication of the highest order,” he said.
Archbishop Hart stressed that protecting the seal of confession did not mean that he would be turning a blind eye to child abuse. Archbishop Hart said he would “go to extreme lengths outside the confessional” to make sure that sexual abuse cases are reported to the authorities.
In Paragraph 1467, The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the ‘sacramental seal,’ because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains ‘sealed’ by the sacrament.”