Seal of Confession Question


#1

This question is not entirely hypothetical. This situation recently occurred in a Chicago suburb.

A woman recently murdered her kids. She went to confession earlier that afternoon.

While the act seems premeditated, we don't know if she mentioned it to the priest. For the sake of the discussion, let's say she did.

What options are open to the priest? Can he contact the police and tell them that he believes that the children are in danger without telling them how he knows?

Is this a true sacramental confession? It's my understanding that you can't confess a sin that you intend to commit and receive absolution. If that's the case, does the seal of confession apply? She's confessed to a plan, not a sin.

In this particular case the police want the priest to tell them what he knows but he has not. Is he in the right in this case? Obviously he can't say anything about other things she may have confessed but if she told him what she was going to do wouldn't the saving of innocent life outweigh the seal if it did apply? It's one thing for a priest to go to a martyr's death but how can he make that decision for someone else?


#2

[quote="garysibio, post:1, topic:303999"]
This question is not entirely hypothetical. This situation recently occurred in a Chicago suburb.

A woman recently murdered her kids. She went to confession earlier that afternoon.

While the act seems premeditated, we don't know if she mentioned it to the priest. For the sake of the discussion, let's say she did.

What options are open to the priest? Can he contact the police and tell them that he believes that the children are in danger without telling them how he knows?

[/quote]

No. The seal of the confessional is absolute.

Is this a true sacramental confession?

We have no reason to suspect that it isn't.

It's my understanding that you can't confess a sin that you intend to commit and receive absolution.

That's right. So, if she went to confession in order to confess her sins, this wouldn't come up, and there's no question as to validity.

If she went to talk about something that she might do, then it's really a question of conjecture. I would expect that her confessor might have advised her to seek professional counseling.

If that's the case, does the seal of confession apply? She's confessed to a plan, not a sin.

We're presuming she brought it up, right?

Either way, the seal should apply.

In this particular case the police want the priest to tell them what he knows but he has not. Is he in the right in this case? Obviously he can't say anything about other things she may have confessed but if she told him what she was going to do wouldn't the saving of innocent life outweigh the seal if it did apply? It's one thing for a priest to go to a martyr's death but how can he make that decision for someone else?

Let's suppose she said, "I'm thinking of doing this thing." What's the appropriate response? If it were simply a counseling session, what would we expect? The counselor would -- we presume -- recommend that the person seek the appropriate level of help. But, if the person should go ahead with their plans, wouldn't there be the expectation of confidentiality on the part of the counselor?


#3

[quote="Gorgias, post:2, topic:303999"]
No. The seal of the confessional is absolute.

We have no reason to suspect that it isn't.

That's right. So, if she went to confession in order to confess her sins, this wouldn't come up, and there's no question as to validity.

If she went to talk about something that she might do, then it's really a question of conjecture. I would expect that her confessor might have advised her to seek professional counseling.

We're presuming she brought it up, right?

Either way, the seal should apply.

Let's suppose she said, "I'm thinking of doing this thing." What's the appropriate response? If it were simply a counseling session, what would we expect? The counselor would -- we presume -- recommend that the person seek the appropriate level of help. But, if the person should go ahead with their plans, wouldn't there be the expectation of confidentiality on the part of the counselor?

[/quote]

If someone's life is in danger, a psychiatrist or psychologist must notify either the person or the authorities, I forget which one. I do not know how much information they are required to divulge.

In a case like this I would have no problem with a priest going to the police and saying I cannot give you details but there is a distinct possibility that so-and-so is in danger and needs to be protected. It strikes me that, if you want to consider yourself pro-life, you need to do something to prevent a possible murder.


#4

The seal is absolute.


#5

In this particular case the police want the priest to tell them what he knows but he has not. Is he in the right in this case? Obviously he can't say anything about other things she may have confessed but if she told him what she was going to do wouldn't the saving of innocent life outweigh the seal if it did apply? It's one thing for a priest to go to a martyr's death but how can he make that decision for someone else?

I'm not sure what is being discussed here. I would think the proper thing to think about the priest as that with his background he did what he was suppose to do.

I would also think he and his bishop may have even discussed what he should and should not do if the police are indeed asking him for information.

I'm sure the priest did not take anything lightly that he heard in the confessional. No one knows if he heard anything other than a typical confession.

Prayers for the souls of the children, the woman arrested and her husband, and for the priest she saw earlier on the day of the deaths.


#6

[quote="garysibio, post:3, topic:303999"]
In a case like this I would have no problem with a priest going to the police and saying I cannot give you details but there is a distinct possibility that so-and-so is in danger and needs to be protected. It strikes me that, if you want to consider yourself pro-life, you need to do something to prevent a possible murder.

[/quote]

Doing so would be a mortal sin for the priest, resulting in his automatic excommunication.


#7

[quote="1ke, post:4, topic:303999"]
The seal is absolute.

[/quote]

Yes, but is it breaking the seal if no one is named?


#8

Yes, it’s broken indirectly.


#9

[quote="garysibio, post:7, topic:303999"]
Yes, but is it breaking the seal if no one is named?

[/quote]

Yes. One word: absolute


#10

Can. 983 §1. 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.

Can. 984 §1. A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.


#11

I still don't understand how you could break the seal ir any harm could come to the penitent if the penitent's name is not given.

Another question, and this is complete speculation: What would happen if the penitent said my spouse was going to harm the children? The person being reported is not the penitent.


#12

[quote="garysibio, post:11, topic:303999"]
I still don't understand how you could break the seal ir any harm could come to the penitent if the penitent's name is not given.

Another question, and this is complete speculation: What would happen if the penitent said my spouse was going to harm the children? The person being reported is not the penitent.

[/quote]

The betrayal of confidential information is in itself a harm - certainly any penitent expects, and rightly so, that anything whatsoever said in the confessional stays confidential. And the thought that a priest has broken that confidence, even partially and indirectly, is a harm.

A priest is not even supposed to discuss your own past confessions with you without your express permission, that is how absolute the seal is.


#13

[quote="garysibio, post:11, topic:303999"]
I still don't understand how you could break the seal ir any harm could come to the penitent if the penitent's name is not given.

[/quote]

NOTHING from the confessional can ever be discussed, names or no names.

[quote="garysibio, post:11, topic:303999"]
Another question, and this is complete speculation: What would happen if the penitent said my spouse was going to harm the children? The person being reported is not the penitent.

[/quote]

It does not matter what scenario you come up with, the answer is the same. No. This is a violation of the seal.


#14

[quote="LilyM, post:12, topic:303999"]
The betrayal of confidential information is in itself a harm - certainly any penitent expects, and rightly so, that anything whatsoever said in the confessional stays confidential. And the thought that a priest has broken that confidence, even partially and indirectly, is a harm.

A priest is not even supposed to discuss your own past confessions with you without your express permission, that is how absolute the seal is.

[/quote]

I still don't see how a priest calling the police and saying "I can't tell you anything more but I have reason to believe that so-and-so's life is in danger." No more, no less. Besides, if the person is talking about something they intend to do in the future, it's not a confession whether it takes place in the confessional, the priest's office or Maxwell Smart's Cone of Silence.


#15

The Priest can give counsel to the person, and do his best to help them, but he can NOT break the seal of confession.

I did a little digging on the story (I think I found the right one), and to me it sounds like she may have been mentally disturbed (or it could be an act, I don't know) - but if someone initially says they killed the kids because they are demonic and she's trying to save their souls, here in Canada she'd be immediately sent for a psychiatric evaluation - in the end she said it was because she was angry at her husband, but that's a little unhinged too.

Even if she did tell the Priest, there is no way for him to know it would be done - even if he could tell authorities (which he can't, of course).

You mentioned psychiatrists and mandatory reporting - I'm not too sure how it works down there, but here, while there is mandatory reporting it is very narrowly defined. They have to ascertain how likely the event is going to happen or has happened. If you walk into the office and say "I'm going to kill someone" they don't just pick up the phone and call the cops. They have to find out if you are serious or speaking hyperbolically. Are you delusional? Do you have means, a plan, etc. It's not all black and white, and yes, mistakes can happen.

Personally, I would assume that either she did not mention it, or if she did, the priest did all he could within his ability and within Church Law to prevent it.


#16

[quote="garysibio, post:14, topic:303999"]
I still don't see how a priest calling the police and saying "I can't tell you anything more but I have reason to believe that so-and-so's life is in danger." No more, no less.

[/quote]

If the priest were allowed to do that, then that would make potential confessors less likely to seek absolution, thus endangering their mortal souls.

[quote="garysibio, post:14, topic:303999"]
Besides, if the person is talking about something they intend to do in the future, it's not a confession whether it takes place in the confessional, the priest's office or Maxwell Smart's Cone of Silence.

[/quote]

The typical hypothetical scenario is that the person has already planted a bomb or poisoned some food, which will kill the victim sometime in the future.


#17

I remember a scenario when I was in the seminary where someone asked "What if a guy came into the confessional and said 'Father, forgive me for I have sinned. I just planted a bomb in your car. I'm so sorry.'" This, of course, was meant to be the unsolvable conundrum. The priest is supposed to forgive the man, and then when it's time to get in his car, to do nothing about it and be blown up. I remember a priest saying that his response would be "Your penance is to take the bomb off of my car RIGHT NOW!"

That doesn't break the seal of confession.


#18

[quote="Just_Lurking, post:10, topic:303999"]
Can. 983 §1. 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.
Can. 984 §1. A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.

[/quote]

I want to focus on the word "penitent" because obviously, as someone pointed out earlier, a person is not *penitent if they go into the confessional and say "I'm going to kill two children," but then they never change their mind, or recite an act of contrition. If you're going to do it, you are *not *sorry. It could be argued that the sacrament of confession *has not taken place *in that instant, and the person is a potential *perpetrator *rather than a *penitent. The seal shouldn't apply.

But even in that extreme case, as someone also pointed out earlier, there is a *long way *in between saying that you're *going *to do something, and actually *doing *something. I'll stop short of saying whether a priest could or could not call the cops in that instance, but I think it's very likely that this didn't happen.


#19

I can't cite the source for this, because I don't remember where I read it. But somewhere I have read that after emerging from the confessional, the priest has to act as if he has completely forgotten everything he heard. The rationale being that while hearing confessions, he is acting in persona Christi, therefore he as a human individual did not really hear all those things, it was Christ who heard them. Of course in actual fact the priest did hear those things, but morally, he has to act as if he did not.

The penalty of excommunication is just that, a penalty, that is not in itself the reason for the existence of the seal. The real reason, at least if I understand it correctly, is what I just gave above. There is also the practical fact that people would be less likely to go to confession if the seal did not exist, but that is still not the primary reason.


#20

Beyond the Theological flaws previously mentioned and addressed by other posts with the given scenario...

There is a major flaw in logic in several of the posts as well. ... For argument's sake ... if said women came in for confession -
how would the priest report such a thing? How could he call the police and
turn in a potentially anonymous woman/man? I go to confession behind a screen AND curtain- priests will sometimes ask for a FIRST name or age... marriage status etc. but I have never heard one ask for a full name. Unless the priest in this hypothetical scenario can recognize the voice of the individual ... how might he report him/her?

-PAX VOBISCUM


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