Question on Confessional

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    What would happen if someone confessed something illegal in confession? For example if someone admitted to committing a rape or a murder or a theft in a confessional? I know the Priest is bound by Church law not to reveal anything learned in confession, but what does a Priest do in that situation? Can he go to the police or anything?


    Since he is bound by the seal of confession he would be breaking that seal if he told the police. The priest could advise the penitent to turn himself in to the police, but the priest could not go to the police himself.

    "Jon":3ius88wo wrote:
    Since he is bound by the seal of confession he would be breaking that seal if he told the police. The priest could advise the penitent to turn himself in to the police, but the priest could not go to the police himself.[/quote:3ius88wo]
    But isnt this a major flaw in the belief of Confession? Believe me, I am not trying to find flaws within the Catholic Church considering The Orthodox Church, of which I am a part of, has the same seven sacraments-including confession. It’s just that I mean most people would be too terrified to turn themselves in for a murder, especially if its convenient enough that they got away with it. It is possible that, if not turned in to the police by the Priest…they would get away with it

    It is quite a double edged sword. The priest cannot reveal what he has learned in the confessional, even to the point that if you confessed something to a priest, and afterward the priest thought of something he should have told you, he cannot speak even to you unless you gave him permission to discuss what you had revealed to him in the confessional. Otherwise people would not openly and honestly approach the Sacrament.

    If someone overhears the confession of another person, (let’s say the person in the confessional had a very loud voice) anyone else who hears the confession is also bound to the seal.

    A priest does have options. If it is someone who comes on a frequent basis and confesses the same sins, with no attempt to change his life, and give up his sin, or the priest is not convinced that they are really sorry for their sins, he is not required to grant absolution, (forgiveness) he should instruct the person that they should review their life and try to overcome thier sins, and return to the confessional at a later date when they have made a good attempt to stop their sinful habit. Or he can grant absolution, but remind the person that the Sacrament is not a “get out of jail free card” that it does not magically forgive sins of persons who are not sorry for their sins and willing to try to amend their lives. Theologians in the Catholic Church use the Greek and Latin Father’s as a guide for what the early Church taught. The Greek Fathers used a term for repentance, metanoia, denotes a change of mind, a reorientation, a fundamental transforma¬≠tion of outlook, of man’s vision of the world and of himself, and a new way of loving others and God.

    While a priest could and should tell the rapist or murderer the above, and encourage them to turn themselves in, even possibly offer to go to the police station to ensure the person was not mistreated when they turned themselves in, they could not go to the police in their own, or even reveal the confession to the police when they went with the criminal with out his expressed permission.

    Most moral theologians would say that if the police arrested someone who the priest knew was not the rapist or murderer that he could tell the police, I’d continue looking for the criminal, but could not tell them anything else that would pinpoint an individual. He could protect an innocent person wrongly accused, but not tell the police how he came by that information.

    Orthodox priests are held to the same standards. The following is from OrthodoxWiki.
    The secrecy of the Mystery of Penance is considered an unquestionable rule in the entire Orthodox Church. Theologically, the need to maintain the secrecy of confession comes from the fact that the priest is only a witness before God. One could not expect a sincere and complete confession if the penitent has doubts regarding the practice of confidentiality. Betrayal of the secrecy of confession will lead to canonical punishment of the priest. From the Guidelines for Clergy (Orthodox Church in America)


    I would like to add here that the priest is bound by his vows to uphold the sanctity of the confessional. There is a similarity in the oath taken by a doctor in which he cannot reveal anything that the patient does not allow him to reveal.

    As for criminal law, no individual is obligated to report a crime to the police and you cannot be prosecuted for not reporting a crime. There’s no legal obligation on the priest, both as a man — and certainly not as a priest — because the priest could not reveal what he was told.

    The difference between a lay person and a priest, in this scenario of a confession to a murder, is that we are only obligated to speak to the police if we are questioned. Only then, we cannot withhold information.

    But, unless or until the police approach you about the crime (then you must answer their questions or be charged with obstruction), you are still under no obligation to report anything you might know or have been told. That’s our law. A priest has no such obligation to cooperate if approached or questioned about what might have been confessed to him. As a man he has no legal obligation to report knowledge of a crime. As a priest — he cannot.

    And, yes, the priest would encourage and support the criminal to go to the police to turn himself in. However, I believe if a priest violated the sanctity of the confessional he could be stripped of his holy orders.

    If our laws could violate the confessional, that also would violate our Constitution in which our government has no business in the beliefs of a religion. The very Constitution that allows us to practice our faiths freely, also protects that faith from government (in this case the police as representatives of government), interference in religious practices, such as any govenrment attempt to violate the sacrament of reconciliation (in this example).

    Of course, if the criminal decided not to go to the police to turn himself in then it would be possible that he “got away with it.” However, that is between him and God — the police could not force the priest to reveal what he learned in confession and no judge would allow it. Separation of Church and state.




    When it comes to the Confessional there are two sets of laws that cover what is heard during someone’s confession. In some places civil/criminal law of the State protects the confidentiality of those things heard in the confessional and Doctor’s office. However if a Doctor or Nurse hears someone say, I’m going to go to the tallest building in the city and thow myself off after this office visit, they can call the police and say, “You need to come to the office and get Mr. X who is threatening to kill himself or someone else.” and not have to worry about violation of HIPAA privacy laws. A priest may call the police and say you need to be on the watch for a suicidal person at the tallest buildings around town. But cannot pinpoint the person. The reality is there may be more than one life contemplating suicide which may be saved, but the individual cannot be identified.

    As to Civil vs Canon (Church) Law. Civil law in most places honors the priest as having to uphold the seal of the confessional, however does not usually give the same rights to somone who overhears a confession. Canon (Church) law includes anyone who overhears the confession, it does not matter if they do so legitimatly or not. An example of someone who may overhear a confession in a legitimate matter would be if someone needed to go to confession but did not speak a language that the priest understood. Someone could with the permission of the person confessing translate for the priest and penitent, however they must be instructed to only translate, and not add or omit anything the priest or person says, and that they are bound by the seal of the confessional, and cannot reveal anything heard in the confession. This also includes asking the person or priest about something discussed in the confession afterward. This also includes sign language translation.


    True, LARobert. A medical professional has a duty and an oath to save a life. If someone confesses that they will take a life, or take their own, they are duty bound to prevent it and report it — but only to save a life.

    However, I was thinking “after the fact” of a crime. You and I have no obligation to report a crime until or unless we are questioned about it by the police. You do not have to come forward, but if approached you cannot lie and obstruct an investigation by holding back what you know. And a doctor has doctor/patient confidentiality until or unless the patient signs a HIPAA release to disclose anything in those medical records, after the fact.

    I agree that there’s a legal argument and religious argument here for your example of someone who assists in interpreting or signing a confession to a priest. My argument would be that the seal of the confessional extends to the person assisting the priest in understanding the confession.

    When I do legal work, at times I have had my boss extend his attorney/client privilege to me, as a non-attorney, in writing. Acting as an “agent” of my boss give me privilege and I cannot be called to testify against a client, or assist in an investigation of his client, with anything I might have learned while interviewing the client for him.

    A sound legal argument could be made should such a case arise whereby an “agent” for the priest assists in the confession and the priest’s obligation would extend to the agent used to assist in the confession for that purpose only. I think the government might be hard pressed to break the seal of the confessional by doing an end run around a priest via the agent who assisted him.

    From a secular point of view, to attempt to do so violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

    Aside from my adversion to seeing government trying to backdoor themslelves into the confessional, from a secular standpoint I believe government has no place in interfering or “changing” religious practices, such as the sacrament of reconciliation. [Edited to add that the government has no place in religion until or unless the religion violates secular law. For example, a religion that uses certain accepted illegal practices in the name of religion (but we are not addressing that here)].

    It’s assumed that anything I learn during the course of my work is still attorney/client privilege — his privilege extends to me. Further, he uses foreign language interpreters for his non-English speaking clients. The translator or signer is also instructed not to converse with the client, other than to relay the questions and answers, and to not add anything or ask questions of their own. It’s as though they are not in the room. In fact, it is considered poor form for the attorney and the client to look directly at the interpreter during translation (other than for signing) as the translator is a facilitator. I know of not one who was called to testify against the client.

    However, there is one case that comes to mind where an Arabic interpreter then became a willing participant in crimes. That was the case where the convicted blind Sheikh, who is imprisoned, was assisted in furthering the Sheikh’s crimes when the interpreter brought out messages (which only he could understand in Arabic) to people on the outside. However, in that case the interpreter went on to commit new crimes while interpreting and he lost “privilege.”

    If the interpreter or signer for the priest then used the information learned in the confessional to go on to commit other crimes, by use of that knowlege obtained, then the privilege would also then be broken.

    Interesting question and discussion.


    I wanted to correct one thing that I said. The “law of agency” is usually applied to civil and commercial transactions, but applies to third parties and can be either explicit or implied. It is as though my boss is acting, not me.

    On the other hand, attorney/client privililge does extend to translators and non-attorney subordinates in the same vein, unless I was not a subordinate but merely some third-party who heard the confession first. So, a work relationship must exist between me and my employer for his privilege to extend to me.

    I would agree that the interpreter or signer for a priest is also their subordinate during a confession and the government cannot compel testimony against the penitent.

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