As Americans, we cherish the age-old inviolability of the doctor-patient and lawyer-client confidentiality. As Roman Catholics, we revere with religious awe, reverence and gratitude the Seal of Confession. The priest-penitent confidentiality is SACROSANCT and outranks all others. Not even the Pope can ask or demand that a priest break the seal and reveal the identity OR the sin confessed in the Sacrament of Penance. Priest Confessors must be ready and willing to sacrifice their own life rather than violate the seal.
Imagine if the New York Times publicly chastised a lawyer for respecting confidentiality of attorney and client rather than violate the trust of the defendant and disclose information to the police. Imagine MSNBC humiliating a doctor for not violating the physician-patient confidentiality and incriminating the accused. It would NOT happen. Yet, a bishop and a cardinal are vilified and demonized for defending the priest-penitent confidentiality.
I had the honor and privilege of attending the Pontifical Mass in the Extraordinary Form at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Washington, DC) yesterday afternoon at 1pm. The original celebrant was supposed to be His Eminence Dario Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos. He was attacked in the press for thanking a bishop who refused to break the seal of confession. The penitent was a priest who confessed he was guilty of pedophilia. He could have confessed to mass murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, drug dealer, etc., yet NO SIN EVER EXCUSES THE INVIOLABILITY OF THE SEAL OF CONFESSION.
The secular press DISTORTED the facts and made it sound as if Cardinal Hoyos praised Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux, France, for not reporting a clergy sex offender of children to the local police. In reality, the Cardinal praised the Bishop for not violating the Seal of Confession. PERIOD. Father Rene Bissey confessed his sins and whether he was contrite or not, no priest, bishop, cardinal or pope can reveal who went to confession nor what they confessed.
If the priest abused the sacrament by intentionally tying his superior's hands via the confidentiality of the sacrament, then the priest penitent is guilty of sacrilege but the confessor is forever bound to respect the total and absolute inviolability of the confidentiality of the Sacrament of Penance.
But there is a double-standard today. Lawyers and doctors and even reporters are expected to keep confidentiality but the media wishes to polarize clergy and laity, priests and bishops. Ask any second grader preparing for his/her first confession and First Communion. They KNOW that NO priest can ever disclose the identity of the penitent nor the nature or details of the sins confessed. Were he to do so, the priest would incur an AUTOMATIC EXCOMMUNICATION which only the Pope can revoke.
Yes, pedophilia is a horrible, despicable and disgusting and those who abuse children deserve swift and complete JUSTICE where good is rewarded and evil punished. Nevertheless, the Seal of Confession can never be broken. EVER. If the media only realized this and respected it, (they need not agree with it), we would at least have fair and balanced journalism. The ends do not justify the means. Even Charlie Manson should expect his confession to be kept absolutley secret. Nazis and Communists tried to get priests to break the Seal of Confession to no avail. We live in a world where absolutes are endangered species and extreme rarities. Permanent marriage vows unto death or perpetual sexual abstinence for unmarried folks may seem draconian to many people today, nevertheless, they were done in the past and can and ought to in our own era. Likewise, the INVIOLABILITY of the seal of confession is NON-NEGOTIABLE.
Cardinal Hoyos is unjustly slandered. He did not defend the cover-up of a pedophile. He defended the sanctity of the Sacrament of Penance and the total confidentiality of the Seal of Confession. The Bishop who heard the priest's confession may have done so unknowingly. A prudent bishop avoids any potential conflict with his priests by normally avoiding being their spiritual director or confessor. This way, whenever a priest is accused of any misbehavior, the bishop can reprimand and discipline the priest as he has learned of the infraction in the open forum. This is why seminary rectors are not allowed to be spiritual directors or confessors (except in periculo mortis) of seminarians. Otherwise, they might have their hands tied when it comes time to evaluate or discipline a seminarian as he could accuse the rector of violating the seal or using information obtained in the closed forum. Hence, bishops tend to avoid hearing priests' confessions so they can justly shepherd their personnel. However, I can envision a scenario where an unscrupulous cleric annonymously goes to confession to his bishop and reveals his identity once inside the confessional.
Hence, Fr. Bissey could have snuck into the box and confessed his sins to the bishop at which time it is too late to say "I'm sorry but what you said is NOT off the record." Normally speaking, bishops would refuse the request of a priest to hear his confession (unless he were dying) to protect the bishop and the diocese and Holy Mother Church should the penitent priest need to be disciplined for misbehavior. If a priest sneaks under the radar screen, though, nothing can be done to dissolve the Seal of Confession. Even a bad confession done for self-serving immoral reasons remains inviolable.
It is the spin-masters who twist the facts and make it seem as if Cardinal Hoyos is protecting pedophiles and/or the cover-up by bishops. He did not praise the bishop for thwarting a police investigation. He lauded the protection of the Sacrament which has NO exceptions. Unpopular as it may be, the sanctity of the Seal of Confession protects the common good of the universal church. Otherwise, no prisoner would go to confession to the Catholic chaplain. If priests could be put on the witness stand, then so could doctors and lawyers. Either confidentiality exists or it is a fictional fantasy. Catholicism has proved it can be done for more than two millennia. That means a few bad eggs and rascals escaped justice in this life but not forever. And what about the truly repentant penitent who confesses his heinous sins? Is our religion not founded on FORGIVENESS? Yes, reward good and punish evil but Jesus also commanded we give people the chance to REPENT. This is NOT a tolerance for pedophiles anymore than Jesus gave carte blanche to adultery when He stopped her from being stoned to death in the Gospel. Was He lenient on fornication? No. He was merciful to sinners.
No one is suggesting that criminals be allowed to escape justice. Justice must be tempered by mercy yet it is never denied by it, either. Innocent children must be protected at all times BUT only through moral means. Violating the seal of confession is never an option.