Priest confession legality question

In another thread, not mainly about this subject, I asked a question that never really got addressed. I’m not Catholic, never have been, never will be (religious in any way) so maybe that’s why I’m unclear, but say a priest hears a confession of a horrible crime that’s gone unsolved and the police are clueless. This crime is so awful that the priest feels he wants to push the limits of the confessional and give the police something to work with, so he writes an anonymous note to them telling them where evidence may be found, etc. He feels that this crime is so horrible that he’s willing to risk his career for it, get excommunicated, whatever. But he then in his own confession asks for forgiveness for breaking the seal of the confessional or whatever it’s called.

Wouldn’t he just get forgiven (given penance, etc.) and be able to continue as a priest? Or forced to resign from the priesthood as his penance? Or get consigned to the eternal flames of damnation or whatever poppycock they’re promoting as their torture of the month? IOW, what happens to him if he gives the cops the help they need in breaking the case and the guy (it’s always a guy) who done it gets put away, and the (ex-) priest finds a way to live with the guilt? Something? Nothing? Anything?

Not sure what I’m asking, and maybe because I’m so atheist that I can’t see any of this as being remotely wrong, but what’s the problem with the scenario that I’ve laid out here?

If his superiors find out he’s broken the seal of confession, he could face expulsion. If he confesses his sins, he’s forgiven by God and can get into heaven. He’s still kicked out of the priesthood, though.

In other words, being fired as a priest isn’t being excommunicated from the church.

I’d think this would be a staple of mystery/true-crime/detective etc books about priests hearing crimes confessed. (As such, maybe belongs in Cafe Society?) I don’t read such things, but has this situation come up often enough to be a cliche? I.e., priest hears confession of brutal horrible crime, decides to break the seal of his confessional, suffers punishment, guilt for doing so,–it’s so obvious a conundrum (maybe not for a true believer, though I have a hard time conceiving of hearing someone confess to a brutal crime and deciding “Oh, well, the rules of my organization compel me to take this creep’s secret to the gave”) that I suppose whole libraries have been written about it.

And if no one finds out where the anonymous letter came from, he’s good? How often do writers of anonymous tips ever get found out?

There have been a couple of Forensic Files episodes dealing with murderers who were outed by anonymous communications to police by preachers. In one case, the killer’s daughter revealed her suspicions to the preacher, who sent an anonymous letter to authorities. They eventually tracked him down, as I recall using postage meter data from the envelope. Another case:

I don’t recall hearing about sanctions for the involved clergymen from their churches, but maybe Catholics take this stuff a lot more seriously.

Yeah, this is the part I have trouble bending my head around. You’ve got a multiple-rapist/killer/cannibal running around loose, and you decide that the rules of your organization say you shouldn’t drop a dime on him, so you place those rules over your human decency? But hey whatever floats your boat.

We place those same rules on that person’s lawyers. Are you outraged about that? I’m no longer a Catholic - but I can still see that if the confessional was no longer sacrosanct, it would stop being used.

Clearly, I don’t get it because I don’t get religious belief. The lawyer thing makes rational sense to me, I understand the principle involved, and concede it’s virtuous because it’s important to me that people can feel confident about talking to a lawyer, though even there, I wonder if a lawyer might not sometimes decide “Fuck it, I’ll risk disbarment but I have to drop a dime on this horrible creature (if I can only figure out a way I won’t get caught, and his conviction overturned).” It’s a dilemma but i can’t see it as an absolute, and especially not where it’s based on a belief system that many people (like you?) have decided after many decades is a crock of made-up fairy tales anyway.

The role of confessor isn’t based on a belief system, though many of the machinations may be. It’s nearly functionally equivalent to that of a therapist, who is also bound to not “drop a dime” on their patients.

I don’t think we disagree on much.

What I’m trying to get at is that shrinks, priests, lawyers all come up against worst-case scenarios that test their ability to follow the rules of their profession to the utmost. I would think, especially with shrinks, priests, lawyers etc who have gotten somewhat disenchanted with their youthful ideals, that their humanity kicks in and they say “Oh, fuck it, I can’t let this monster walk free a day longer.”

I understood (don’t remember from where) that if a shrink discovered something awful he was legally required to report it.

Also, if a priest breaks the confessional to report something, and then confesses that to another priest, wouldn’t that second priest have to break the confessional to report it to a “higher” authority? Tattletales all the way up?

Don’t get me wrong - I approve of this kind of snitching.


Sure. They could also compel the original priest to admit his actions to his superiors as part of his penance. There’s all sorts of ways for the situation to resolve either way - it’s not a perfect system.

BTW in the legal side, the attorney/client, pastoral, etc. privilege is so that the lawyer/pastor/etc. cannot be compelled to turn in, and testify against, their client/congregant.

Yes, in many jurisdictions (not absolutely everywhere) there are some professionals that are “mandatory reporters”. Some only in case there is actual crime/harm ongoing or an imminent threat thereof; others specifically in cases such as child abuse in case of reasonable suspicion. In the case of attorneys there is relief of the privilege if the lawyer realizes the client is consulting with intent on how to get away with a crime.

General physician/therapist–patient/counselee privilege is NOT a default/automatic privilege, it only exists in some state courts by statute.

Exactly – a condition for the penance and absolution would be for you to turn yourself in to your superiors and accept the corresponding sanctions. Which if you take things seriously you would have acceoted you had to in order to do the right thing by everyone.

A priest has no authority in civil law - he is offering a way of absolving the sin in the eys of God. If that sin also breaks the laws of the society, he should still inform the secular authorities (since the priest is citizen of his society).

Replace “priest” with “therapist” and get back to us.

As an about-to-be ordained Deacon in the Episcopal Church, I’ve had a similar discussion. As clergy, I am required to report certain crimes against minors. As for the OP’s question, it is an ongoing ethical conundrum. The confidence that clergy have as a function of their position in any church is inviolable, and once violated, can’t really be regained. Unless the perp is a violent narcissist, there will likely be some conversation around confessing the crime, doing the right thing, getting right with God, and so on, according to the religious tradition involved. I know I would take that course of action.

Thanks for the answer, Vlad. Now, anyone similarly situated on the RC side of the fence able to contribute?


I guess I’d hope that a priest/pastor/minister would have more “human decency” than a lawyer.

Would a loyal-to-the-church priest really be able to say “I’d alert the authorities, but God wants me to let this rapist/killer/cannibal run free.”?

IAMAP, but I assume it’s more like “my role as a confessor is critical to my job and profession - if I violate one person’s confidentiality no one will trust me or my coworkers ever again.” You know, just like the other professionals in similar positions of patient/client confidentiality do on a daily basis and no one gives a shit about.

“How many injuries and/or deaths are my job and profession worth?” would be the question I would ask myself.

Cannon law 1388

"§1. A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict.

§2. An interpreter and the others mentioned in can. 983, §2 who violate the secret are to be punished with a just penalty, not excluding excommunication."

Note that latae sententaie means automatic. Reserved to the Holy See means only the Pope himself can absolve that sin.