The secret of the confessional cannot be broken. It was reiterated by Belgian bishops in a long statement regarding the case of a priest who was sentenced to a month in prison by the Court of Bruges a few days ago for failing to rescue a person in danger. The criminal Court of Brudges found Father Alexander Stroobandt, chaplain in a nursing home in Brudges, guilty of not having called for help after the confidential phone call of a man who told him he would commit suicide. For the Court the secrecy of the confessional is comparable to professional secrecy, since “everyone has the duty to save a person from danger.”
Professional secrecy. The Belgian Bishops’ Conference responded in a long press release underlining the substantial difference between professional secrecy and the secret of the confessional, understood as the sacrament of reconciliation, which thus is binding only for priests and bishops. Conversely, professional secrecy extends to a wider audience and it includes priests, deacons, religious and lay people when, in their pastoral role, the latter are exposed to private conversations in which people address existential issues: diseases, sentimental problems, crimes they committed or were victims of, choices to be made. All of these issues – reads the statement – involve concrete people and thus they require special discretion in the management of the information received. However, there are some exceptions. In their statement the bishops refer to “exceptional circumstances” which allow for “the right to communicate” enshrined also in Criminal law. “Exceptional circumstances” are “all those emergency situations in which a person’s physical or mental integrity – especially if vulnerable or minor – is in serious danger and cannot protect him/herself alone nor with other people’s help.”
In these cases the pastoral worker can break professional secrecy and exert “his right to communicate.”
Professional secrecy and abuse. In their statement the bishops underline that they have broached the issue of professional secrecy and right to communicate in their guidelines on combating sexual abuse inside the Church. Pastoral and social workers can report crimes against minors (including sexual abuse, rape, deliberate assault) to the Court or to authorities in charge, without violating professional secrecy. When pastoral workers are aware that the other person is a victim, a molester or a third party, they must avoid promising utmost confidentiality for it is their duty – read the guidelines – “to protect a person in danger, especially children and youths.”
Secret of the confessional. “The Code of Canon Law states that the secret of the confession is inviolable.” On this point the Belgian bishops leave no room for doubt. Furthermore – they add – “the Code of Canon Law makes no exception to the inviolability of the confessional seal. This means that a priest cannot reveal information on a penitent and on his confession.” This “applies also with regard to law enforcement authorities and magistrates.” It does not prevent the secrecy of the confessional from becoming “a pretext to take preventive measures. This is true especially in the case of sexual abuse on minors or vulnerable persons”, the bishops write in their statement.
A priest can enjoin a sexual abuse offender to appear before a court. He can take this exhortation as a necessary condition to grant sacramental forgiveness.
The same issue was addressed in Australia. In a document with 84 “Recommendations” proposed by the Royal Commission to the Catholic Church of Australia to fight the scourge of sexual abuse at internal level, n.35 requests bishops to break the “confessional seal” and to report to authorities when a priest is faced with a case of abuse revealed in the confessional. On that occasion, the archbishop of Melbourne, Denis J Hart, President of the Bishops’ Conference of Australia, declared: “Confession inside the Catholic Church is the spiritual encounter with God through the priest. It’s a fundamental part of the freedom of religion and it is recognized in the Law of Australia and in many other Countries. It must remain so here in Australia. Outside of this, all offenses against children must be reported to the authorities, and we are absolutely committed to doing so.”