Some info and thoughts re the Seal of Confession

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This page has been compiled in response to news that the Irish goverment, in response to publication of the Cloyne Report,  is considering  enacting legislation which would mandate that a priest report allegations of sex abuse learned during confession.  It seems there may be one exception to the mandate, that being those instances in which a victim discloses sex abuse during confession but does not at that time want to come forward.

This is a very cursory look at the issue.  I would like to read and research more.  Are there any canon lawyers out there who can offer input?


1983 Code of Canon Law

Can. 983 §1 The sacramental seal is inviolable. Accordingly, it is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion. 

§2 An interpreter, if there is one, is also obliged to observe this secret, as are all others who in any way whatever have come to a knowledge of sins from a confession. 

Can. 984 §1 The confessor is wholly forbidden to use knowledge acquired in confession to the detriment of the penitent, even when all danger of disclosure is excluded. 

§2 A person who is in authority may not in any way, for the purpose of external governance, use knowledge about sins which has at any time come to him from the hearing of confession.



Can. 1388 §1 A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal, incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; he who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the offence.

§2 Interpreters and the others mentioned in can. 983 §2, who violate the secret, are to be punished with a just penalty, not excluding excommunication. 


The following is from  A Catholic Dictionary (William E. Addis and Thomas Arnold, Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, London, U.K., 1957) The old code (1917) of canon law prevailed at the time.  I don’t have a copy of the 1917 code but do know Can. 983 §1  is said to be derived from Canon 889 §1 of the 1917 Code, and is said by some to be stronger in reiterating the gravity of violating the seal.  Canon 984 is said to be similar to canon 890 of the 1917 Code. The 1917 Code is in Latin.  I believe there is one English translation in print: I sadly do not have copy.  I will keep an eye out for  it.  I would like to see what differences, however minor or major they may be, exist.

I get the impression also that it was  the 1983 Code which introduced two levels of violation of the Seal, one ‘direct’ which incurs automatic excommunication, and the other ‘indirect,’ which incurs a “just penalty” not excluding excommunication.  I believe, but stand to be corrected, that prior to 1983  any violation of the Seal incurred a penalty of automatic excommunication. 

Here then is the section on the Seal of Confession as found in the 1957 edition of A Catholic Dictionary 

SEAL OF CONFESSION. the obligation of keeping absolutely secret knowledge gained through sacramental confession. It rests on the natural law which binds us to keep secrets communicated in confidence, and on the ecclesiastical law, which, as we shall see, forbids, under most severe penalties, any revelation of sins confessed sacramentally. But it also arises from the positive divine law, and, as Suarez points out the obligation of the seal is probably connatural, and belongs to the very essence of the sacrament of Penance. In other words, Christ did not impose the obligation of confessing mortal sins committed after, baptism and then add a protective law binding the priest to secrecy, but the obligation of the seal follows necessarily from the nature of confession as instituted by Him; otherwise, Penance, which is the ministry of mercy and reconciliation, would become a burden intolerable to mankind. What the priest hears in sacramental confession he hears not as a mere man, but as one who stands in God’s place. He must not by word, or look, or change of conduct remind the penitent himself of any thing  he has heard, much less convey such knowledge to others. To do so is sacrilege, excusable by no advantage to himself, to the public, or even to the penitent. The law admits of no exception, except where the penitent freely gives the confessor leave to use his knowledge. Not only sins however slight, but moral or natural weaknesses, sins of accomplices, all that may bring the penitent into trouble, or contempt, or suspicion of any sort, fall, if known through confession, under the sacramental seal. A priest might break the seal, in certain circumstances, merely by admitting that a person has confessed to him; or, again, even if there be no danger of suspicion fixing itself on any individual, by revelations which might bring bad repute or suspicion on a community or a certain number of men. 

The first express mention of the seal of confession, so far as we know, occurs in Canon 20 of the Armenian Synod at Dovin, in 527. It anathematizes any priest who breaks the seal (Hefele-Leclercq, ii. 1079). In the West, there is no mention of penalties for breaking the seal till very late; probably because such a sacrilege was scarcely thought possible. There is a decree attributed to Pope Gregory (as Morinus conjectures, Gregory vu), and quoted by the Master of the Sentences and Grattan (Can.”Sacerdos,” 2, causa 33, q. 3, dist. 6), which sentences a confessor guilty of this crime to deposition and to perpetual and ignominous pilgrimage. The Fourth Lateran Council (“Extra. de Poenit. et Remiss.” ; Const. ” °Innis utriusque nexus”) condemns such a priest to deposition and perpetual imprisonment in a monastery. The sanctity of the seal is further recognized by all the Oriental sects (Denzinger, “Rit. Orient.” vol, i. p. 101), and their canon law threatens with the most severe punishments those who break it. 

Whether, in English law, confession made to a priest is privileged, is a matter of some doubt. Serjt. Badeley (“The Privilege of Religious Confessions in English Courts of Justice”) maintains the affirmative. The whole question is well discussed by R. S, Nolan in “Cath. Enc.” He quotes Phillimore (“Ecclesiastical Law”) as saying : ” When this question is again raised in an English Court of Justice that court will decide it in favour of the inviolability of the confession.” In theUnited Statesthe position at common law is the same as inEngland. But some of the States have made the privilege a matter of Statute Law. 

In one respect, modern are stricter than mediaeval theologians with respect to the seal.St. Thomas(“Suppl.” q. 11, a. 1, ad 3) says an abbot who knows from the confession of his prior that the office is an occasion of ruin to him may, on some excuse, relieve him of his office, if he will not resign it willingly, provided always there is no danger of the confession being revealed. According to St. Alphonsus (“Theol. Moral.” lib. vi. n. 656), this is the doctrine of St. Bonaventure and Alexander of Hales, but he adds that it can on no account be put in practice, and this is certain from the eleventh of the Propositions condemned in 1682 by Innocent xi. The Code says that it is strictly forbidden to use knowledge obtained from the confessional to the detriment of the penitent (cum gravamine paenitentis), even though there be no danger of revelation (Can. 890). (Ferraris, Sigillum Confessionis; De Lugo, “De Poenitentia,” disp. 23 ; Ballerini, “Theo. Mor.” vol. v. p. 486 sqq.) 

Note the following: 

(1) It was believed that “modern” theologians were stricter in their interpretation of the seal.  The example is given of the Abbot, and the approval of Saints. Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure.  However, St.Alphonsus says no.  

(2) Note that in the condemnations of Pope Innocent XI “it is strictly forbidden to use knowledge obtained from the confessional to the detriment of the penitent.”

I see the operative words as being “to the detriment of the penitent.”  I find those words  or variations of the same (no harm will come to the penitent from the confessor’s use of information) frequently as I look through various interpretations and commentaries.

So, does this in turn mean that information from the confessional can be used if it is deemed NOT detrimental to the penitent? or, will NOT cause harm to the penitent.

My questions are, for now, the following: 

(1) Is it to the detriment of the victim to report to police that he/she alleges sex abuse at the hands of a priest?   Would it cause harm to the victim to so report? 

(2) Would be detrimental to report to police if the victim did not want the abuse disclosed?  Would it cause harm the victim to so report?

 (3) Would it be detrimental to the victim if a priest-confessor reported to police that a penitent reported allegations of clerical sex abuse and indicated a willingness to go forward and agreed to speak to the priest outside the confession  and in that conversation agreed to report to police?  Would it cause harm to the the victim?

 (4) Would it be detrimental to a clerical molester if he confessed his crimes in a circumstance whereby the confessor knows beyond a shadow of a doubt  the identity of penitent, and the priest-confessor in turn reported to police that this priest-penitent said during confession he had molested children?  Would it harm the molester?

 (5) Would it be detrimental to a clerical molester who is refused absolution because he refuses to take his confessor’s advice and turn himself in to authorities, and the priest-confessor in turn reports the circumastances to police?  Would it harm the clerical molester? 

I see some latitude here, and room for exceptions.  As I have said elsewhere, I truly don’t know what would be gained by this mandatory reporting from confession as far as bringing a clerical molester to justice, but I do believe there may be room there to allow for exceptions, as long as there is no harm done to the penitent.  And that of course would get into defining harm, but, I do see room.  What, as I have pondered elsewhere is to gained, I don’t know, but it might, for example, become an exception in a case where a victim had told a priest of clerical sexual abuse  during confession but wasn’t ready to come forward, and 30 years later that victim went to police and so on, the end being that the priest is called in to confirm tp police and/or the Crown the disclosure during confession.  There may indeed be cases where a priest remembers a particular confession but feels bound by the Seal.  Since no harm is being done  to the penitent, and in fact to the contrary, could there be an exception?

As for the clerical molester, I do not for a moment believe that these men would confess such crimes/sins to a non-clercial molester who might readily identify them by voice or possible appearance.  I believe too that many clerical molesters do not bother confessing their crimes/sins because they have no conscience.  I also believe that in some instances one clercial molester confesses to another. 

I know of instances where  a molester has heqard the confession of this victim.  That is good for excommunication.   Has it ever happened?  If yes, I haven’t heard of it, but then I wouldn’t expect that to be broadcast far and wide.  But, if it hasn’t happened, why not?  What’s the problem?

I see online too that some canon lawyers are tossing around the idea of the penitent giving the priest-confessor permission to speak and discuss the confession. That too could come into play where a victim comes forward 30 years later and police are trying to verify his/her account of diosclosing to Father X in confessional.  Beyond that, I don’t really see the merit of this, but perhaps I haven’t thought it right through?


New commentary on the Code of Canon Law (John P. Beal, James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green, Paulist Press, 2002)

 There are excerpts online.  Page 1164, provides a partial commentary on the relevant canons from the 1983 Code of Canon Law

In canon 984, the second of the two related canons, other use of knowledge gained from a penitent’s confession of sins may be permitted – or, according to a more prudent judgment, tolerated – only if there is no danger of revelation (i.e., of matters disclosed in the confession and the identity of the penitent) and if no harm will come to the penitent from the confessor’s use of information…. 

The other commentaries on the Code which I have in hard copy  say much the same.  It’s always back to “no harm” to the penitent.


19 July 2011:  Where does that leave me? BLOG


The following is an example from 1892 of a priest wrongfully convicted of murder who refused to violate the Seal of Confession to save himself. 




Inangahua Times, Rōrahi XVII, Putanga 39, 7 Pipiri 1892, Page 3




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