Brendan Hoban on the debate over the Seal of Confession
What we need now is a leadership, at this point, that eschews populism but
that calmly and deliberately, in the midst of competing voices pushing a
variety of agendas, does what has to be done. And recognises too what can
and can’t be done.
I wonder whether Alan Shatter, the Justice Minister, whose bailiwick this
is, has thought through the implications of his intention to force priests
to break the seal of Confession, in the interests of child protection.
There are all kinds of situations where client confidentiality demands
certain in-built protections. But the Seal of Confession is of a different
order altogether – as the standard of secrecy protecting a confession
outweighs any form of professional confidentiality or secrecy. Priests do
not just regard it as an absolute duty not to disclose anything that they
learn from penitents in the confessional. They know that if they reveal
anything they have learned during confession to anyone, even under a threat
of their own death or that of others, that they would be automatically
excommunicated. A priest cannot break the seal to save his own life, to
protect his good name, to refute a false accusation against himself, even to
save the life of another.
In a criminal matter, a priest may encourage a penitent to surrender to
authorities. However, this is the most a priest can do. We cannot directly
or indirectly disclose the matter to anyone, civil authorities or anyone
else. This very specific priest-penitent privilege is usually respected in
law and without it a priest’s capacity to fulfil his ministry is inhibited.
In a famous Hitchcock film ‘I Confess’ (1953), a killer confesses a murder
to a priest. In the event the priest was accused of the murder but the
dilemma the film conveyed was that the priest couldn’t break the seal of
Confession, even though his own life was at stake.
It is a measure of the vulnerability of the Catholic Church that part of the
package of measures being contemplated by the civil authorities effectively
amounts to a rejection of protection in law for what was always regarded as
the sacred seal of Confession.
Has it all come to this?