The removal of certain censures is reserved to Rome. For example, deliberately defiling the Eucharist incurs an automatic excommunication that can only be lifted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.Other censures are reserved to the local bishop, such as the automatic excommunication incurred by procuring an abortion (though in some countries I realize that the bishops have granted the faculty to lift this excommunication to priests). My question pertains to the confessional. If an penitent confesses to one of these sins, the consequences of which can only be handled by the bishop or by Rome, how does the priest address the issue without breaking the seal? If I go to confession and I say “Father, I am a cleric who molested a minor” or “Father, I participated in the attempted ordination of a woman” or “Father, I participated in Satanic rituals which desecrated the Eucharistic Host”, how does the priest take the appropriate action?
Please note that I am not a canon law specialist.
I imagine the priest would tell the penitent that he lacks the faculty to lift the censure then inform him/her of the steps needed to do so. It would then be up to the penitent him- or herself to act upon the advice given.
In my archdiocese, there is a Grand Penitentiary (I’m translating here; the French term is Grand Pénitencier). Currently, this mission is fulfilled by one of the canons of the metropolitan cathedral chapter. It is his role to handle such special circumstances with the participation of the penitent and the appropriate authorities at the Holy See.
The local bishop has the authority to lift most of the excommunications, and some delegate this power to all their parish priests. If the confessor has not been granted the faculties, or it is required to go the the Holy See, then the priest submits a petition under a pseudonym to the tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary for removal of excommunication. These go to the Apostolic Penitentiary:
*] a man who directly participated in an abortion and later wants to enter the priesthood;
*]priests who have broken the seal of confession;
*]priests who have offered sacramental absolution to their own sexual partner;
*]desecrating the Eucharist;
*]and making an attempt on the life of the pope.
If this is a matter of an *undeclared *excommunication (which is most likely), then the confessor can remit the penalty right then and there and absolve the sin, if it would be difficult for the penitent to remain in a state of excommunication/grave sin for the time it would take to follow the usual procedure. This is true for any such excommunication, even if the remission is reserved and/or the priest does not otherwise have the faculty. However, the penitent or the confessor is then to approach the authority who has the faculty and follow that authority’s instructions. If this recourse is not made, then the penalty will be re-incurred. All of this information is contained in canon 1357 of the Code of Canon Law.
If the confessor is the one who has recourse, then (as Vico said) he must sanitize the information so that there is no danger of a violation of the Seal. If the reservation is to the Holy See, then (again, as Vico said) the Apostolic Penitentiary is competent since all of this is taking place in the internal forum.
So, the important point is that the confessor, in this scenario, actually remits the penalty and grants absolution. It seems that most people are unaware of this ability of the confessor.
The priest contacts the Apostolic Penitentiary
Their contact information is here (on their official webpage, available for anyone to read)
The phones and fax machine are manned 24 hours a day, every day, with absolutely no exceptions.
The priest first contacts them and explains the situation (without divulging anything that would betray the identity of the penitent). They take it from there, depending on the individual circumstances.
What is the expected turnaround on something like this? What is the urgency of the confessor taking action? Obviously things will vary depending on the situation, but perhaps you could share your thoughts on this at least as a baseline.
Does he send the rest of the confession line home so he can devote himself 100% to this issue? Does he say, “OK, let me get contact them after mass, then I’ll touch base with you”? Or “This is important enough that I’m going to cancel the mission trip I’m about to leave on, since there is no telephone service there” Or “I’m going to the main island in a month, I’ll find a phone when I get there so I can contact Rome”?