Privacy of Confessions vs. Protecting Priests

I recently went for confession at my local church, and I was surprised to find the parochial vicar hearing confessions in the “cry room” instead of in the confessional as usual. (For those not familiar with the term, a “cry room” is a soundproof, glass-fronted room that allows parents with small children to observe what’s going on during Mass while keeping their kids from distracting others.) This meant that everyone waiting for confession could see what was going on during each confession. In particular, everyone could see whether or not the priest granted absolution to each penitent.

This raised two questions in my mind:

  1. Is a priest’s decision whether or not to absolve something that should be covered by the Seal, and thus not readily ascertainable by others, as in the case described above?

  2. The 1983 Code of Canon Law states, “Except for a just reason, confessions are not to be heard elsewhere than in a confessional.” Canon 964 §3. I could see priests wanting to avoid the confessional so they can have witnesses in case they are accused of impropriety during confession. Does anyone have any insight on whether this would be a “just reason”?

I feel for priests who want to protect themselves from false accusations, but I love the privacy of the confessional!

You do not provide the whole scenario. Did you walk away? Did you go into the cry room and make your confession? Did you ask the priest to hear your confession in a confessional?

You, of course, have the right to have your confession in a confessional. You could have gone to confession at another time or place or you could have asked the priest to go into the confessional although that would not have given you complete anonymity if that is what you wanted.

Did you ask the priest why he was holding confessions in the cry room?

I left the church and went to confession the next day at another church. I have not had a chance to talk to the priest about why he was not hearing confessions in the confessional.

While I was in line considering whether or not to leave, I saw three people go in for confession. The priest and the penitent sat on separate couches right in front of the window. There was no screen in the room.

Also, the traditional confessionals were both empty and wide open; they weren’t unavailable because of maintenance or some other reason.

I don’t know how much more of the story is necessary or relevant. I guess I’d just like to know: have other people seen priests forego traditional confessions in favor of more public confessions? Is this a trend Catholics should be aware of?

I just wondered if you made your confession in circumstances with which you were clearly uncomfortable or whether you’d asked the priest to hear your confession in a confessional. You have a right to do this and I cannot think of a valid reason why a priest could refuse this. The problem with this is by doing this the priest has to see you while you make this request so if you wanted complete anonymity you couldn’t have that.

Are all confessions in your parish now offered this way? From your post it seems to be a novelty. Are there times when you can go and have your confession heard in a confessional? If the priest(s) refuse to hear confessions any other way you have two options: 1) go to confession at another church where your confession will be heard in a confessional; or, 2) begin a formal complaint process because your priest(s) refuse to hear confessions in a confessional.

It’s only the contents of the confession that must be private. The act of confession itself can take place out in the open. In fact, in St. Peters Basilica, there are confessionals out in the open that people can use, in spite of people, including tourists, who might be milling around. They can be observed doing their confession by anyone who happens to be looking in that direction.

Observe this for yourself.
Click on this link
which is a website that shows St Peters in 360 degree view. Click on #3 (North Transept) and rotate and enlarge the view until you see the nun who is confessing at an open confessional to a priest.

The traditional rule was the screen between the penitent and priest not the confessional, it was no requirement that others can not see the confession, until they can not hear it.

If a priest gives no absolution, he still gives a blessing, which from outside viewer is not different from the absolution.

Canon 964 §1 The proper place to hear sacramental confessions is a church or oratory.

§2 The conference of bishops is to establish norms regarding the confessional; it is to take care, however, that there are always confessionals with a fixed grate between the penitent and the confessor in an open place so that the faithful who wish to can use them freely.

§3 Confessions are not to be heard outside a confessional without just cause.

I always go to confession outside the confessional in the priest’s office. Now days with the priest’s scandals many parishes have installed glass windows in the confessionals so people can see in, for the safety of both the priest and the penitent. I agree there should be a grill for those who want it. I would say since they started allowing face to face when I was in HS now close to 40 years ago, I have only gone behind a grill once, and that was because the church I was in didn’t have face to face available. I had a bad experience in confession when I was a child so I prefer not going in a confessional and I would rather see who I am speaking to.

A valid point but the expression closing the stable doors after the horse has bolted comes to mind. These are always the minority and the majority should not be denied their legitimate rights because of the wrongs done by a small number.

To understand what’s going on one must understand the reason for the code. The code has been in effect for a very long time, before 1983. It was simply reworded in 1983. There are several points that may be helpful here.

The reason for the code is to avoid scandal. It’s not that the confessional itself has a special signinficance. In other words, celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation in a confessional is not on the same plane as celebrating the Sacrament of Marriage in a church. You marry in a church, because that’s where you worship. There is not that connection between the Sacrament of Penance and the confessional. The Church wanted to avoid scandals such as confessions in secluded areas.

Second, one must understand what the Church considers a confessional. A confessional can be a simple screen with the priest on one side and the penitent on the other. In most of the older churches in Europe and South America that’s what you have. There is no box with a curtain or door. That physical arrangement is much more modern and not universal. I don’t know about other countries, but in the USA it is the one that we know the best, because it was introduced in the 1800s. All of us living today grew up with the boxes.

Third, the just cause point . . . a just cause does not have to be a grave cause. There is a difference in law. I know a priest who does not use a confessional because he is terrified of enclosed spaces. On Saturdays, he uses his office. There is portable screen with a kneeler on one side for those who want to use it. I know a parish that has only one confessional and five priests, usually three are hearing confessions every Saturday. One uses the baby room and the other uses an office. I know priests who are terrified of being in an enclosed space, because of the fear of allegations against them, especially when minors walk in for confession. It’s a legitimate anxiety. We cannot tell other people that their anxieties are not legitimate. People’s feelings are what they are. We have to deal with them or go to another priest. A just cause can be someone who stops you on the street, at the mall, at an airport, etc and asks for confession. I’ve gone to confession on the sidewalk.

What should happen, if you’re not using the confessional room itself, you should have a screen available. That constitutes a confessional. As I said, in most of Europe and South America that’s all they have. In the Vatican it’s stalls with no doors.

The canon was not written to protect privacy. It was written to avoid scandal. You don’t want priests and penitent in secluded places. Even today, it’s not allowed. The physical space has to allow for privacy in the sense that no one should be able to hear you. But it does not have to shield you from view.

Not using the confessional room for some firvolous reason, whatever that may be, does not constitute a sin or make the sacrament illicit. That’s not what the canon says. The liceity and validity of the sacrament depend on orders, faculties and contrition not on the physical space.

Finally, observe that the canon does not describe what a confessional must look like. If we read about churches, the canons do describe what is necessary for a church to be a church, not so with the confessional. That’s why you can have a screen setup in the cry room and that would constitute a confessional. It would be no less of a confessional than a screen set up in one of the aisles in some big church in a major city. As far as denying absolution, there are very few conditions under which a priest is allowed to deny absolution. Even when this happens, it is not observable to the rest of the people who are waiting. It is done very charitably and very discretely. As someone pointed out, he may even give you a blessing.


Br. JR, OSF :slight_smile:

Funny thing is, I do not recall any of the cases during the scandals involving someone being solicited in a confessional. Moreover, face-to-face confession theoretically allows someone to be touched.

The glass doors seem to be a purely visual, “feel good” solution imposed by attorneys who wanted to point to something that the church was doing to protect priests and penitents. I do not believe that this accomplishes anything. And while I realize that the confessional boxes that we know are actually a later invention, I believe that they offer the most privacy, especially for the penitent.

Unfortunately, there were cases that involved the confessional.

As for the privacy . . . the canon is not as concerned with the privacy as it is with the avoidance of scandal. The idea of having a place to hear confession eliminates the excuse to seek some hidden nook where scandal can be given. There is another canon that addresses the issue of the seal of confession; but that’s another kind of privacy.


Br. JR, OSF :slight_smile:

Can you point me to some of those cases?

I realize that the intent is the avoidance of scandal, but how does the presence of glass windows avoid that? Since no one can hear what is being said, what benefit is there?

I, too, do not understand how these “glass booths” can be of any benefit. In my parochial church my priest and I are separated by a wall with a grille in it covered by a veil. It is physical impossible for either me or the priest to have any physical contact.

In the type of confessional at my parochial church or in the “glass booth” it would still be possible for the priest to say inappropriate things to me.

I fail to see the benefit of the “glass booth”.

My parish had confession in a cry room during the last week of Advent.

It was kind of necessary because there was a line of twenty people each for our two regular confessionals. Probably 15 people in line for the cry room (it was formed last). Then the pastor came out (we have two priests on permanent duty and two on loan out, one who runs a mission and one who works on the base - he’s an Army chaplain in order to support his wife and six kids. :thumbsup: ), and he started hearing confessions (I think) in the little entry room between the outside of the church and the nave. Pretty awesome.

many older churches in Europe are built this way with carrels rather than enclosed rooms, I often see this in Mexico as well in old churches. Personally I think the confession rooms introduced in the 70s were a huge mistake. Had the confessionals standard in American churches until that time remained in place the opportunities for offenses committed there would never have occured. In 3 parishes here the same change OP observes was made, moving confession to the cry room, or installing glass in the confessional doors.

I’m taking a guess here, because I don’t have any official answer to this. I know that we are to be in open spaces whenever we are with minors or there must be a second adult present. If I carry that over to the confessional, I would guess that this is the greatest reason for the glass . . . to ensure that if there is a minor in the confessional, adults can see.

Confession is tricky, because there is only so much that you can allow. You can’t allow a second person in to hear the conversation and you cannot record it. You do the best you can to protect everyone, including the priest. The best you can do is a pane of glass.

Someone mentioned the Reconciliation Room as a negative thing. The Reconciliation Room is more of an American concept. In Europe you had a screen with a kneeler out in the open or an open stall. You could kneel at the screen or you could walk to the other side and kneel in front of the priest. Face to face confession was never abrogated. It fell out of use. I’m not sure how or why. By the time they began to build confessionals in the USA they were enclosed boxes. The Reconciliation Room is really the return of an option that was never taken away.

We tend to be more formal in the USA than in other countries. We create a special room. Other countries that I have visited simnply have a screen and you can kneel or walk around and sit. In some European cultures, the priest will lean forward to allow you to whisper. You’re almost head to head.

I’m not sure how they celebrate Penance in the other Catholic Churches. I’ve been to mass, weddings, funerals and chrismation, but never to confession in another Catholic Church. My only experience has been Roman. But I have had the Roman experience on three continents and it’s very different in the USA. We seemed to be more concerned about privacy than people of other cultures. They’re more concerned with protecting the seal of confession. In most countries where I have lived, people are not too concerned about being seen going to confession. They’re used to the open confessionals.

Have a blessed New Year!

Br. JR, OSF :slight_smile:

I’ve had confessions in a lot of places… a regular confessional, the sacristy (the line was over 20, there were 2 priests and only one confessional), in the back row of the church (everybody else had left already) and in the priests living room (I had only gone there because I needed some guidance and he seemed the right person to ask… what started as a conversation ended up becoming a full fledged confession).

Someone may have already mentioned this, but the concern with whether someone receives absolution or not is remedied by the priest simply giving a blessing to the penitent in place of absolution, when absolution is refused for whatever reason. This would have been common in the past on pilgrimages and other events that prevented the priest from making use of a confessional.

Keep in mind also: The Eastern Catholics don’t even have a requirement for a fixed screen…

A typical byzantine confession is done standing just outside the altar area, in front of the icon of Christ, with the priest placing his stole over the penitent’s head, both bowed down, and usually, whispered to the priest.

Whether one was absolved or not is noted at the next liturgy, as part of byzantine penance is reception of the Eucharist within the next day or two.

The use of a screen in the west was to show that the priest was/is keeping his hands to himself, and focusing on the sins rather than the sinner.

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