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QUESTIONS OF PRACTICE: A woman and priest at a temporary confessional set up in Madrid.
Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images
QUESTIONS OF PRACTICE: A woman and priest at a temporary confessional set up in Madrid.

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Religion | Court ruling could open the confessional booth

Issue: "Border gridlock," Aug. 9, 2014

In the New Testament, Jesus and Paul repeatedly warn that adding to the Scriptures would create more problems than it solves (e.g., Mark 7:6-13; 1 Corinthians 4:3-6). An unprecedented recent ruling by the Louisiana Supreme Court illustrates this danger.

The ruling revives a lawsuit that contends a priest should have reported allegations of sexual abuse disclosed to him during private confessions, and opens the door for a judge to call the priest to testify about what he was told. The lawsuit was filed by parents of a teen who says she told the priest about being kissed and fondled by an adult church parishioner.

If the priest were called to testify, Catholic groups say it could leave him choosing between prison and excommunication. “Confession is one of the most sacred rites in the Church,” said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights: “The seal of the confessional is absolute and inviolable. A priest is never permitted to disclose the contents of any Confession.” The local Catholic diocese, charging that the ruling violates constitutional church-state separation, will seek U.S. Supreme Court intervention.

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The lawsuit alleges that in 2008 a 64-year-old parishioner at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in East Feliciana Parish kissed and fondled a 14-year-old girl and continued to pursue her with emails and phone calls. Court documents say she confided in her priest on three separate occasions in the confessional booth, telling him the man had “inappropriately touched her, kissed her and said that ‘he wanted to make love to her.’” The girl claims the priest told her to handle the situation herself because “too many people would be hurt” if it was known: “He just said, this is your problem. Sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.”

At one point in the history of the case, an appeals court said the priest could not be required to report information confided to him in confession. But the state Supreme Court ruled that since the girl waived her right to keep her confessions confidential, the priest “cannot then raise it to protect himself.” The ruling allows evidence from the confession to be submitted, though it doesn’t necessarily require the priest to testify in the case, which will be tried again in July 2015.

The ‘sacramental seal’ is not taught in the New Testament but was officially added to Canon Law by the Fourth Lateran Council in A.D. 1215.

The difficulties in this situation have been compounded by the Roman Catholic doctrine of the “sacramental seal,” which is not taught in the New Testament but was developed during the Middle Ages and officially added to Canon Law by the Fourth Lateran Council in A.D. 1215. It guarantees absolute confidentiality in Confession (Canons 982-984) and requires excommunication for any priest who breaks it (Canon 1388). Richard Bennett, a former Catholic priest and president of Berean Beacon ministries (bereanbeacon.org), told me that “by requiring something that the Bible does not, the Church has created problems like this for itself.”

Most Protestant ministers, who view the Bible as their only source of authority, are able in good conscience to comply with the legal requirements of reporting abuse, because Romans 13:1-7 says the government is ordained by God to punish evil, and Matthew 18:15-17 prevents them from promising absolute confidentiality to anyone. Bennett says the secrecy of the “sacramental seal” not only creates a moral dilemma for priests, but “it also has contributed to the problem of abuse itself."

—Dave Swavely is a Pennsylvania pastor/author; the Associated Press contributed to this article

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