Article: "California Prepares to Make Martyrs of the Confessional." California legislature considering law that could jail priests who don't break seal of confession

This proposed law will require priests to tell the police about child abuse or neglect they hear about in confession.

“The Confessional Is a Hill I’m willing to Die on.”

“Canon Law gives us the minimum standard: “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.” (983.1)”


Given that California neglects to execute double murderers who have been sentenced to death, I doubt martyrdom is a real possibility, but prison most certainly is a danger.

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The seal of confession is ABSOLUTE. Those dying protecting may indeed be martyrs. Not that that will happen in California.

Since Confession is anonymous, how is the priest supposed to tie such information to a specific individual?


God help ALL Priests to stay steady and strong in their Priestly duties. Give them the graces they need to do Your will Lord.


Although, in practice, most Confession (at least in the United States) is behind a screen blocking the penitent from view of the priest, it isn’t technically a requirement. Canon 964.2 states that only a grate is required, with no mention made of anonymity.

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It’s hard for me to believe that child abusers are confessing that to priests.

Here is the thing. How would anyone know a person told a priest something?

“Anyone come in to confession this week reporting any child abuse Father? No? Okay, see you next week.”

Any law that is passed cannot be enforced. A priest answers to God, not to the police.


Nightmare scenario: a ‘Penitent’ sent by the state comes in to confess abusing a child, knowing full well Fr. X is the priest for that day, and records his confession. If Fr. X says nothing to the authorities … here come the cops.


A penitent sent by the state? No one can make someone go to confession.

An undercover agent of the state can certainly be ordered to, probably one who has no bones concerning the Church or the Sacraments.

Granted, this is worst case scenario… But I could see it happen


No chance that will survive a constitutional challenge.


Such a case already happened in Louisiana. A woman said she had confessed to a priest that she was sexually abused. The family took the supposed sexual abuse to court and the court ordered to priest to say what the girl told him in confession.
Luckily, after going through several courts, the priest was relieved of any legal requirement to say what the girl told him in confession. According to the law of the Church, he wasn’t even allowed to say if that confession occurred. If he had refused to talk, the priest could have been put in jail.


So, the priest did not speak.

And by the way, in that case as you described it, the girl confessed that she was abused. She did not confess she was an abuser. I think that a good lawyer would be able to say that the priest cannot testify to what happened because he was not a witness. He cannot determine if what the girl said had in fact happened by the person she would name.

A sting operation would work this way: The D.A. would send in someone wearing a wire to make a fake confession of child abuse, making sure that he went to a priest whose name he knew and preferably one who knew him. The police would then wait for the priest to report this fake crime to them in a timely manner. When the priest did not report, the cops would show up at the rectory to arrest him.

Incidentally, I have also heard it said, although no one can say for sure, that some priests guilty of sexual liaisons have deliberately confessed to their pastors face to face in order to ensure that the pastor cannot report them to the bishop without breaking the seal of confession, with no intent to end the sex.


A couple thoughts:

  1. Face-to-face confessions do remove the anonymity. This could be gotten around by barring face-to-face confessions, but the state could of course attempt to legislate past that.
  2. The priest could provide general details like time and place. That would at least help start an investigation, and if the parish has cameras could require them to turn them over.

On the slightly less desirable side, isn’t it possible for the Church to lift the anonymity requirement? As far as I’m aware, it is a discipline, not a dogma, and there’s certainly historical precedent for not doing so anonymously. While I doubt this legislation could ever pass challenges, making an allowance in the U.S. or general might be a way the Church could avoid putting her priests in such a situation should the worst case scenario come about. It would, however, maybe make people much less willing to go to confession, which might be one of the biggest dangers of legislation like this.

It could be a sting operation.

If you’re a mandated reporter, you have to report any sign of abuse, including a statement by the person claiming to have been abused. I remember in college professors often mentioning that they were one and to not report sexual abuse to them if the intent was to keep it private with someone the person trusted.

The thing is, if the priest were to find any evidence of it outside the seal of confession, he is no longer obligated to remain silent. Sure, he can’t go into the details of the confession, but he can certainly speak as much as he feels like on what he found outside confession, even if it covers all said in confession.

We pray that’s the case

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As I have been reading thru the volumes of the Early Church Fathers, I have learned that anonymity was not a requirement in the first centuries. If it was established in later centuries, and not made mandatory to boot, one would think that it certainly could be removed. Personally, I don’t see that happening, and if it were to happen, I believe we would see confession numbers drop even lower than they are now.

Full disclosure: I confess face-to-face with our parish priest. We have similar backgrounds (military service, education, etc.), and we are friends.


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It could be an entrapment thing, kind of like they send cops undercover to buy drugs. Just send an undercover cop to confession, have him confess child abuse, and then arrest the priest if he doesn’t report it.

This would be very questionable. The priest could do nothing to investigate a confession in order to obtain evidence. The confessional seal is absolute, a priest cannot even let a confession affect his behavior towards a penitent.

No, a priest cannot do this. Again the seal is absolute. A priest can make a general statement like “I often hear these types of sins in confession”. A priest can make no reference to any individual confession. Simply leaving out the name is not enough.

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That is quite clearly entrapment, and not even California’s courts would be able to uphold that ruling without becoming the laughing stock of the nation… I mean, moreso than they already are…

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