Breaking the seal of confession?

E03a-photo-e1480059351589A Belgian priest of the Diocese of Bruges is being sued for not acting on information shared with him in a confession. The case has the potential of becoming a precedent on how society and law deals with the seal of confession, as well as the professional secrecy as it exists in medical professions, and also highlights once more what confession actually is.

The case: a man confided in a confession over the telephone (which, under certain circumstances, such as immediate duress, can count as a confession) that he had suicidal thoughts. He later acted on those thoughts and ended his own life. The wife of the man now sues the priest for never having informed anyone of what he learned in the confession. The problem is that the priest couldn’t. The seal of confession is absolute. He could have urged the penitent to seek professional help, even offered forms of help himself, be it the help he could offer himself or relaying the help of others. But that is just about the end of it.

The paradox in this case is that suicide in itself, sad and disturbing as it is, is not a crime under Belgian law, so not acting on the suicidal thoughts of a person can not be considered cooperation in a crime, and the priest can’t be accused of negligence in that regard.

There is some uncertainty, however, if the confession in which the priest learned about the suicidal thoughts of the penitent actually was a confession. A confession, by definition, involves a sin which can be be forgiven. Suicidal thoughts are not in themselves a sin, especially since they are most often caused by factors, mental or otherwise, outside of a person’s control. All the same, the man could have been convinced that his thoughts were sinful, and this would be enough for a valid confession. But if that was not the case, the priest would have been free to offer his help or inform others, with the man’s consent, of the situation and the help needed.

Also, if the suicidal thoughts were shared in a confession of other sins, the seal of confession would obviously also apply: it affects the entirety of the confession, not just the sins, but also whatever pastoral advice or personal thoughts are being relayed. The priest in that case simply lacks the freedom to divulge what he learns. This protects the integrity and freedom of the sacrament and the penitent.

Confession is not just a pastoral conversation or personal meeting with a priest. According the Catholic teaching it is the intensely personal presentation of one’s wins to God, and asking His forgiveness. The priest who hears the conversations is not really a party in this: he is a tool to hear the confession and relay advice or penitence according to his own formation, inspiration and understanding, but these ultimately derive from God. Everyone must be free to stand before God and open themselves up to Him, which is why they must first be aware of the freedom to ask for and receive the sacrament of confession. In many cases this involves the certainty that what they share is shared in complete confidence, just like when one would share medical problems with their doctor. It is so intensely personal, and, quite frankly, completely a matter between man and God.

If the case outlined above included a true confession, the priest could do nothing else but keep the information to himself and do his best to convince the man to seek and accept help. He had no freedom to ask others for that help on the man’s behalf, as this would involve breaking the seal of confession. But, as publicist Mark Van de Voorde writes here, “in cases of great evil which fall under criminal law, such as sexual abuse and murder, the penitence also includes that the perpetrator must report himself to the police. Every confessor is obliged to point this out to the penitent, stating that forgiveness of sins is not possible otherwise.” A priest is not completely powerless before a penitent unwilling to seek help.

It will be interesting to see what the judge rules in this case. If the priest is convicted it will set a precedent for any future case involving the sacrament of confession as well as doctor-patient confidentiality and information shared confidentially shared with one’s lawyer. All are protected under Belgian law (as they are in many other European countries).

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