In Brief

When can a priest reveal a confession?

Catholic Church forbids breaking seal of secrecy but there may be ways to bypass decree

The Australian Catholic Church is under fire after rejecting a government push to force priests to report accusations of child sexual abuse heard during confession.

The Church said that “children would be less safe if mandatory reporting of confessions was required”. Lifting the ban on breaking the confessional seal would be “contrary to our faith and inimical to religious liberty”, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) and Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) added in a statement

That response has been blasted as “not good enough” by Leonie Sheedy, co-founder of the Care Leavers Australasia Network support network.There have also been allegations that the Catholic Church may be protecting criminals in its ranks.

The row is the latest development in a long-running debate over whether priests should be able to reveal the details of a confession in certain circumstances.

What does the Church say?

To the Catholic Church, the answer is clear: the Seal of the Confessional must never be broken under any circumstances, even in cases of grave criminality.

In the Code of Canon Law laid out by the Vatican Church, Canon 983.1 states: “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.”

This English translation is particularly mild, according to information site Canon Law Made Easy (CLME), which explains that the original Latin describes breaking the confessional seal as “nefas” - a word with no direct translation in English but which the site says “refers to something that is so wickedly sinful, so abominably execrable, that it is simply impossible to do it”.

Under Canon Law, the punishment for breaking the seal is excommunication from the Church entirely.

Are there exceptions to the rule?

It depends on who you ask. 

To some Catholics - even moderate ones - the seal is absolute and no attempts must ever be made to break it, no matter how serious the matters learned in confession or how much pressure is put on them by lawmakers, the Catholic News Agency reports.

However, others believe there should be leeway.

The CLME website says that “if a penitent has indicated that he fully intends to kill or harm ‘Person X’, a priest may be able to warn the police that Person X is in danger, but without fully explaining how he obtained this information”.

However, “a confessor is forbidden to go to the police with specific information about a penitent which he has learned during a confession”, the site adds.

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