As my Sunday was coming to a close a week ago, I read with eagerness Jeff Jacoby’s column regarding the seal of confession and how lawmakers in a few states would require priests to report crimes that they hear during the sacrament, especially those that harm children and vulnerable adults (“Lawmakers reconsider the secrecy of the confessional,” Ideas, March 12). Jacoby’s reasoning is spot-on with regard to the interpretation of the First Amendment. However, his inclusion of the opinion of canon lawyer Cathy Caridi should be challenged.
She states that “priests can find ways to help the authorities without revealing the content of a person’s confession” and cites one case where a priest hearing confession learned about a crime to be committed and then called the police so that the potential victims could be warned. Canon 984 of church law states that we priests cannot use any information that we hear in confession at all. Just because the priest did not reveal where he got the facts does not mean he did not break the seal.
As a trusted and hopefully merciful priest, I have been blessed by Christ to forgive sin in His name and provide sound spiritual counsel and guidance to dissuade a person from sin and crime. If I were the priest in a case such as the one that Caridi mentions, I would encourage the penitent to meet with me after the sacrament has been completed so that we could further discuss the penitent’s situation, keeping in mind that I still would have to respect the seal and could not even mention his or her sins to the penitent unless the penitent brought them up independently. This conversation could allow me to contact authorities without risking my automatic excommunication from the Church.
The Rev. Brian Clary
Sacred Heart Parish