ROME - In spite of public pressure for priests to reveal information they learn in the confessional, the Vatican’s highest court has issued a document — approved by Pope Francis — that explains why priests should not disclose such details. The document says that, although not always understood by the modern world, the seal of the confessional is inviolable, indispensable and necessary for the penitent's freedom of conscience.
A six-page document signed by the head of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary, a tribunal which deals with absolution and confessional matters, and approved by Pope Francis in June, reaffirms the “inviolability” of the confidentiality of confession. The clergy is obliged to maintain the secrecy of the confessional because it effectively transcends any and all human laws. A priest, the document says, is a conduit for the penitent to speak directly to God.
The document further states, “Every political or legislative initiative aimed at ‘forcing’ the inviolability of the sacramental seal would constitute an unacceptable offense against the freedom of the Church, which doesn't receive its very legitimization from any single country but from God.”
This new document clarifies the position for priests who may hear something that they may feel needs to be reported to the police. The Vatican effectively exonerates them from repeating to anyone what they heard during confession.
Since the sexual abuse scandals erupted, seven U.S. states have passed laws requiring priests to report confessions of sexual abuse of minors, with more likely to do so. The statement issued by Cardinal Mauro Piacenza and published Monday, even though it only affirms existing Church teachings, sets Church and State firmly on a collision course.
In Australia as well, two of the country’s eight states have introduced laws making it a crime for priests to withhold information about abuse heard in confession.
Cardinal Piacenza, however, did clarify in a written comment on the document that there has been no change to Pope Francis's resolve to combat clerical abuse and cover-up. He wrote: “It’s opportune to make clear that the text of the statement cannot and doesn’t want to be in any way a justification or a form of tolerance of the abhorrent cases of abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy.”
He added that, “No compromise is acceptable in promoting the protection of minors and of vulnerable persons and in preventing and combating every form of abuse, in the spirit of that which has been constantly reiterated."