[WATCH] Archbishop: Seal of confession binds priests not to report sex abuse to police

Maltese archbishop says Church’s ‘Seal of Confession’ is absolute and no priest can betray the confession of another priest who admits to sexual abuse

Archbishop Charles Scicluna
Archbishop Charles Scicluna

Maltese archbishop Charles Scicluna has declared that priests bound by the ‘Seal of Confession’ – the duty of priests not to disclose anything they learn from confession – cannot betray a penitent priest’s confession of sexual abuse by filing a criminal report to the police.

On Xarabank, Scicluna was asked what a priest would do if another priest or layman would confess to him an act of sexual abuse.

“[Priests] are bound by the secret of the confession, because penitents are appearing before God not me personally… If they show contrition, then the penitent promises not to do this action again.

“Unfortunately I would be unable to speak up. I cannot disclose the confession. I cannot reveal what he has said. The Seal of the Confession is absolute. It’s the martyrdom of priests… it is the only secret that can never be betrayed. Why would anyone come for confession if they would be betrayed?”

Scicluna said he could not accept that any sexual abuse declared by a penitent during the course of confession, be revealed to the police by way of a criminal report.

“If the law of the country obliges you to declare such an abuse, that law prevails,” Scicluna then said, appealing to people who wish to speak out to avail themselves of the Maltese archdiocese’s safeguarding commission. “Victims need these people to hear them out. There will be no healing otherwise… the commission takes the case to the police if the abuse took place within the church. If they are adults the choice is theirs, unless the law changes – were we obliged, we would forward the case to the police.”

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According to Roman Catholic canon law, “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.”

Maltese law also safeguards the secret of the confession in the same way it does with professional secrecy: neither lawyer nor priest can reveal affairs confided to them without the consent of the client or penitent, respectively.

Catholic leaders in Australia have also rejected a government push to force priests to report accusations of child sexual abuse heard during confession, saying it would violate a sacred rite, infringe on religious freedom and ultimately do little to protect children. The rebuke came as the local Roman Catholic Church issued a lengthy response to a five-year government inquiry uncovering what officials called a “national tragedy” of widespread sexual abuse of children spanning decades.

Scicluna has been the Vatican’s top investigator in cases of priestly sex abuse, most recently being tasked with an investigation in Chile that led to the mass resignation of its entire bishops’ conference.

The resignations, the first known time in history that an entire national bishops’ conference resigns en masse over a scandal, came hot on the heels of a 2,300-page Vatican report penned by Scicluna as a special investigator into the scandal.

In 2017, the Maltese church’s safeguarding commission concluded risk assessments on another 16 complaints brought to its attention. Ten of these were unsubstantiated. A further three were found to be unfounded while three were not related to abuse but were still referred to other entities for appropriate action.

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