ROME—When Father Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, the head of the French Bishops Conference, suggested that the Catholic Church lift the veil of secrecy on confessions as a way to combat clerical sex abuse this week, eyes rolled at the Vatican. The seal of secrecy on confessions is hundreds of years old and has survived intact through every major sex abuse scandal of the modern era and scores of popes—and any priest who breaks it is automatically excommunicated from the church.
Moulins-Beaufort made the comment on the heels of one of the worst sex abuse scandals to rock the church since Spotlight won an Oscar, with the revelation that thousands of Catholic nuns, priests and lay people abused more than 300,000 minors over a 70-year period. “The scope of the violence and sexual assaults against minors revealed by the report demands that the church revise its practices in light of this reality,” he said in a radio interview. “It is therefore necessary to reconcile the nature of confession with the need to protect children.”
Less than a day after his comments made waves, the spokeswoman for the French bishops clarified that they would not in fact seek to make any changes and that the seal of confession was “above the laws of the Republic” anyway. “One cannot change the canon law for France as it is international,” Karine Dalle told the National Catholic Register. “A priest who today would violate the secrecy of the confession would be excommunicated.”
Father Thomas Reese, an American Jesuit priest and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church, says lifting the secrecy on confession could instead actually make things worse because it would likely keep offenders of all kinds away from the confessional—where they might instead be rehabilitated—out of fear they’d be reported.
He likens the priestly role in the confessional to that of a lawyer. “If a defendant goes to a lawyer and says I’ve committed this crime so defend me, the lawyer doesn’t pick up the phone and call 911,” Reese told The Daily Beast. “Confession isn’t magic, this isn’t a get out of jail free card, this is real life, and part of confession is a firm purpose of amendment.” By that, Reese says he means that in going to confession, the devout Catholic must truly mean they will try to stop whatever it is that they are confessing or the priest will not absolve them and that, he says, puts them at risk of going to hell if they died.
He says in many cases, priests are able to offer counsel, get confessing criminals to turn themselves in to authorities, or get the deviant to stop the bad behavior. “I think that the best argument in favor of the seal of confession is that there will be people who will come to a priest to talk about something they have done and this gives the priest an opportunity to try and get them to stop doing what they were doing,” he says. “And the judgement is that this is better for society as a whole than having these people totally isolated with nobody they can go and talk to.”
In any case, it isn't clear that lifting the veil of secrecy on Catholic confession—which Pope Francis has said is sacred—would do much to stop the problem anyway, since real criminals don’t confess and it is rare that victims trust a priest enough to use the confessional as a place to cry for help.
Reese and other priests also agree that the truly depraved would never confess anyway. “They are delusional or are predators or sociopaths,” he says of serial child abusers. “Are they going to go to confession? No!”
He points out that most priests have no idea who is on the other side of the screen anyway, so it would be impossible to report a confession as such even if they could.
It is rare that a victim of a priest would go to a confession to report a crime, in part because he or she has likely lost trust in the clergy by the very nature of the abuse they are suffering. If it does happen, the priest’s moral obligation is to counsel them to either report the abuse to authorities or to tell the priest about the crime once they are outside the confessional box. That way the priest has no obligation of secrecy, which only applies to the act of confession, and can instead act on a moral obligation to help the victim. A victim may also waive his or her right to secrecy, but that does not mean a priest would be able to do the same. Several U.S. states have held priests in contempt of the law for not breaking the vow if a case goes to court.
The secrets of the confessional do not stop at the sins of the priests. Mobsters have confessed murders, thieves have confessed heists, and adulterers have confessed trysts. Lifting the seal of confession would change the very nature of what the Catholic priest’s role in confession is. Though, as Reese says, there is no data at all on how many crimes are confessed to priests since—at least until now—priests who hear confessions are obligated by the church to take their secrets to the grave.