The Seal of Confession

Hello, I hope nobody minds another question. I know that this topic has been discussed a bit already I have not been Catholic long and I have a question about the seal that concerns me. You all remember about ten years ago in Oregon an inmate’s confession was recorded with the intent of being used against him in court? Terrible! Anyway, the priest who heard his confession has since written a book about the incident. The excerpts from the book that I have read include the name of the person who made confession, the date it was made, where it was made. It does not say WHAT was confessed (at least in the excerpts I have read). Why doesn’t this break the seal? I always thought that the seal of confession (hope i got that terminology right) meant that the name of the person going to confession could not be released? Thank you in advance for your answers!

Good question. The reason why it doesn’t break the seal, is because the seal has already been broken. Whoever recorded it violated the seal. That priest isn’t writing anything in the book that isn’t already “public knowlege.” Also, (based on what you posted) he’s only writing objective facts (name, place, date), but saying nothing about the sins. A priest cannot say or do anything which might harm the penitent, or reveal the penitent’s sins. But if something (like the name) is already available from other sources (which seems to be the case here by your rhetorical question: do you remember?) then the priest isn’t actually revealing anything which isn’t already known.

I haven’t read it, nor am I familiar with this particular incident, but I’m addressing what you have posted, and treating it like a hypothetical.

Thank you FrDavid

I don’t know if the book or the priest addressed this issue, but it might also be possible that it wasn’t a sacramental confession that was taped. For example, was the inmate even Catholic?

Sometimes people talk to priests just for counselling rather than sacramental absolution. In which case, although there might be confidentiality issues, the seal of confession doesn’t apply.

Hi xyneshia,

I don’t know much about this case. Wouldn’t those facts have already been known? In any event, the confessor is not to “betray the penitent in any way or for any reason.” The seal is “inviolable.”


Were these details released by the priest first or by some other source ? Once released they technically are no longer sealed. Most priests even though would not discuss the matter in any way unless the person was deceased.

What is the title of this alleged book and author?

So if the person who went to confession is not Catholic then the Seal does not apply?

Well, by definition the sacrament of confession, to which the seal applies, only occurs between Catholic penitent and Catholic priest. A Catholic priest cannot offer absolution of sins, for example, to a non-Catholic, except in very rare circumstances involving danger of death and such.

Like I said, both Catholics and non-Catholics might nonetheless consult a Catholic priest for spiritual advice or other counselling, outside of the sacrament of confession. In which case there might possibly still be a requirement of confidentiality as with other counsellors, but not the absolute seal that applies to the sacrament of confession.

Br. Rich, and Fr. David,

Interesting! I didn’t know that.

How many people would need to know about the confession in order for the seal to be considered broken? I know for instance if a third party overheard the confession while it was being confessed, that third party is bound by the seal. What if many people overheard it?

And, moving on from the time of confession, if the penitent (or a third party, assuming only one third-party eavesdropper) reveal the contents of a confession to only one other person, does that break the seal, or does it have to become “public knowledge” somehow for the seal to be broken?


The moment any third party is aware of what was said, the seal is violated (unless the third party is another priest, or a translator, who would likewise be bound by the seal). If the violation is an accident (like a nurse in a hospital overhearing) then that person is still bound.

It appears (key word) that in this example, the fact of the confession became publically known. Again, I refer to the OP’s rhetorical question asking us if we remember the incident.

Let us also take note that based on what the OP said, the priest has not revealed the “contents” of the confession, but only some facts of it (name, date, place). It’s very likely that whatever this priest wrote was already available in some very public forums (like newspapers).

Let’s construct a hypothetical. Father Mulcahy hears Klinger’s confession while he’s confined by the MPs in his tent. The MPs overhear the confession and talk about it around camp. “Everyone” is talking about it. Father Mulcahy complains to Colonel Potter who picks up the PA and tells everyone in camp not to talk about it anymore because it’s a violation of the seal. Now, if Father Mulcahy says “it’s a shame that people were talking about Klinger’s confession on Tuesday when he was in his tent” then Fr Mulcahy isn’t violating anything because he’s merely stating what “everyone” already knows.

Thank you Fr. David.

(I cannot believe you think i would lie about this–your post certainly implies that you do not think I am being truthful. Are you that nice to everybody who asks a sincere question?)

I wouldn’t call it alleged, I know the priest and he was selling the books after Mass a few weeks ago. His name is Father Timothy Mockaitis and the book is called “The Seal: A Priests Story”. You can buy it here and here and and
I was concerned about buying the book because I thought that maybe I would be doing something wrong by reading a book about this man’s confession. He did not consent to it being taped, Father Tim certainly did not consent to it being taped and is still upset over the matter. Thankfully the confession was not heard in court, but that was their goal when it was recorded. Father Tim is a great priest and I know he would not intentionally ever break the seal of confession…now that Fr. David has explained how the seal works I understand better how Father Tim was able to write and publish this book.

Oh, so after we die, any confessor who outsurvives us is free to share our sins with the world?

Hmmm. Doesn’t make me too comfortable.

And even if that doesn’t “break the seal,” would it not be detraction, or does that also disappear after the one detracted against dies?

Somehow there seems to be an element missing here, which in my book is something called “good taste.” (Not to mention not speaking ill of the dead.)

Then they all would be under the obligation of the seal of Confession. Once the information is spoken of outside the confessional the seal is broken and the information spoken of is no longer protected. Don’t midunderstand me however. Let’s say A,B,C,D are discussed in Confession. Later the person discusses B with someone else and is over heard. What the priest knows about B, that is not known outside is protected as well as A, C, and D. Let’s say someone approaches the priest and says I understand that so and so is in an abusive relationship. The abuser is the person who confessed A,B,C,and D. Without saying anything about the confession the priest could respond to what has just been told to him, by the other person, outside the confessional.

You seem to be taking what I’m saying as that every priest watches the obituaries and has press releases ready when he spots one of his regulars has died. Most priests won’t discuss a confessions content even after a person dies. Most priests I know or have known won’t even acknowledge a Confession ever took place!

For clarity (and I’m concerned that some readers here might get the wrong impression), the fact that a penitent has died does NOT release the priest from the obligation of keeping the seal. Bro Rich did not say that the death of the penitent removes the obligation of secrecy.

Let’s keep in mind the original post. It certainly appears that what the priest is writing in his book is already available in the public forum and is considered to be “public knowlege” That’s the essential distinction. The priest is not necessarily saying “what he heard” in the confession but “what the papers reported having happened” or “what is recorded in public documents” (like court records which are available to anyone who cares to read them).

It seems the same as the simpler case – a priest doesn’t break the seal of confession if he acts upon (or refers to) knowledge that he learned outside of confession, even if it is the same knowledge that was learned inside the confessional, right? (Although*, *he would certainly need a good reason for using or averting to that outside knowledge).

We could safely assume that the priest in this case “learned” of who went to confession to him from outside sources,and not from what he knew from the confessional. So, he is using, and referring to “outside knowledge” as opposed to “inside the confessional knowledge”.

Is that a fair way of thinking of it Fr. Dave, Br. Rich? Or did I muck it up?


Sure. That’s a fair way of thinking about it.

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