Amid sex abuse scandals, Vatican upholds confession secrecy

Updated: October 23, 2019 11:41 AM

The Vatican reaffirmed its position that priests must not reveal what they hear in a confessional, even if it is about child abuse.

A statement released Monday comes amidst a potential legal challenge that could require priests to report abuse information to law enforcement.

It's known as the "Seal of Confession" in the Catholic Church.  Priests take a vow to keep the information they learn during a confession a secret.

But lawmakers in California are considering requiring priests to report confessions of sexual abuse.

In May, the California senate passed a bill that would make it illegal for a priest to withhold information about sexual abuse in certain situations.

While not referencing the California legislation directly,  the Vatican's statement Monday called such a law an "unacceptable offense against the freedom of the church which doesn't receive its very legitimization from any single country but from God."

"The document issued (Monday) said priests, up to the point of martyrdom, up to the point of death itself, may not reveal the contents of a confession," said Dr. Charles Reid, a professor of law professor at the University of Saint Thomas.  "We may well see priests choose to go to prison rather than reveal the contents of a confession."

In Minnesota, clergy are considered mandatory reporters, meaning they are required to report child abuse or neglect.

However, there is an exemption for clergy when it comes to confessions.

Under Minnesota state law, a priest is not legally required to disclose information about abuse if it is conveyed during a confession.

Below are the professions in Minnesota who are mandated to report child abuse.  Clergy are required to report if they learn of abuse in any setting except during a confession.

Archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis Bernard Hebda issued a statement regarding the Vatican's decision: 

"The seal of confession does not exist to protect priests or the Church.   Rather, it is to allow penitents complete freedom to reveal their sins as a first step to conversion and the amendment of life. 

"For a valid confession, all penitents, regardless of the gravity of the sins they confess, must show a desire to reform their lives, to avoid sinning in the future, and to make amends for the harmthat they have done to others.   This includes those who commit heinous crimes against children.  Without this desire to make amends and to avoid harming others, absolution would ordinarily be withheld from the penitent.  It's not a "get out of jail free card" but rather the beginning of a process of accepting responsibility for what we have done. Who knows how many times a good confessor has led a sinner to turning himself him to the authorities as part of that process?

"Civilized societies have long recognized the value of having such a place where one can enter freely into that process of conversion and have treated the conversation that takes place in confession as legally privileged.  The societal benefit is great. 

"It is disturbing to hear of proposals for legislation that would whittle away at that privilege.  Those proposals not only violate our liberty to practice our faith but also diminish the possibility of leading a person to acceptance of  responsibility for what he or she has done and to avoid such criminal behavior in the future."

A statement released by a spokesperson for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault reads in part:

"MNCASA supports the review and update of all laws that impact victim/survivors of sexual violence. Through the Department of Public Safety, MNCASA is currently engaged in a Criminal Sexual Conduct Statutory Reform Working Group, which will result in recommendations for legislative changes to Minnesota's criminal sexual conduct statutes. Many of Minnesota's statutes were created prior to current research regarding how to be victim centered and trauma informed and, as such, are ripe for review and updates."

The California State Assembly is expected to vote in September on the law passed by the California Senate.

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Tim Vetscher

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