Priest-Penitent Privilege?

I guess the following article describes the current trend. As courts get more conservative, we lose more of our rights. And certain communications, once thought to be privileged, are not immune to this trend either.

So I guess my question is two-part: Is the priest-penitent privilege protect by the Constitution? And secondly, should it be?

Because I have to tell you all, growing up Roman Catholic, I was taught there was nothing more sacred. Priests would sooner face torture or death, than reveal what was said in the confessional. And many times, apparently they did.

I already know what some of you will say. Some people will then re-offend. But that is by no means certain. And it is not even relevant. Privilege communication is privilege communication. And it is absolute for a reason. We assume more good will come from it than not, even if in the short run it might lead to some harm. We could, for example, probably get people to confess more if we used torture. But we don’t, because we agree there are certain lines never to be crossed.

Sorry, if those last two paragraphs sound like I am on my soap box. I really am not. I know there are many opinions on this one, and I would love to hear all of yours.

BTW, another interesting possible development in this story. With the recent death of SCOTUS justice Antonin Scalia, we no longer have a Catholic majority on the high court. Thomas is a Catholic. So are George W. Bush’s two appointments. One of Obama’s appointments, Sotomayor is RC. But they are no longer a 5-4 majority. How will this affect the outcome of this right?

Thank you to all who reply, and keep it civil too:)

That article was from 2002.

In my opinion, if you seek to describe a current trend, you’d do better showing at least two data points, perhaps with the second being of more recent vintage.

I’m not aware of any real enervation of the traditional priest-penitent privilege. The article doesn’t describe any.

I actually got it from an older posting on another message board. I will try to find a newer article. (I for one don’t consider 2002 to be too long ago:dubious:. And I think the trend still largely continues anyways.)

There actually was a story I saw more recently, about a priest who revealed what was said in confession, and was supported by his superiors. I have yet to be able to find it anywhere, including doing several Google searches. Does anyone else know what I am talking about?

I am still doing numerous Google searches. You know sometimes Google just isn’t as effective looking up some subject matter, than others.

Also, FWIW, I think I saw two recent stories on this subject, probably on television (possibly ABC News, which I usually watch). One story was about a Catholic priest in the US who gave absolution to a young hoodlum. But he later ratted on him to the authorities, which his superiors supported (which I think is shocking). The other story I forget the details on. But it perhaps was similar.

I also tried search the ABC News site. But I can’t access it now for some reason. Either the site has crashed, or my computer is acting up.

Again, if any of you know the stories I am talking about, I would be eternally grateful for any help you can give.

I don’t know of any cases that fit your description.

There was a case in Louisiana that involved a 14 year old girl who apparently alleged in confession that a lay member of the parish had sexually abused her. Her family subsequently sued the priest for failure to report the allegation.

However, the appellate courts ultimately ruled that while the child was free to testify about what she said, the priest could not be compelled to testify, unless the information was received outside the seal of confession.

  1. Neil Gorsuch is an Episcopalian and they, along with Lutherans, have confession as well. The exact status of confession as a sacrament or not is a matter of debate among Anglicans and Lutherans, but in any case I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes a strong view of protecting priest-penitent privilege.

  2. I think Sonia Sotomayor is an agnostic or at least nonpracticing, although I could be worng.

The trouble I have with priest penitent privilege is defining the priest/minister. To say that someone is one and someone else is not seems to me quite close to establishing what is and what is not a religion.

This is news to me and I was born in the Church of England, received a palm cross for Easter at Sunday School, and was on the Laudian, Arminian, Anglo-Catholic wing as long as I remained a christian. I have never once heard of an Anglican priest hearing confession.

As to the OP, Confession should naturally be sacrosanct.

Also, in one of his novels, Compton MacKenzie — not yet then Catholic, although despite being married he considered for a time entering the Roman priesthood — made the point that Anglicans consider habitual confession morally debasing.

It does seem rather clockwork…

Uh, OK. The rite of confession (AKA “reconciliation”) is on pp. 447-452 of the American Book of Common Prayer,

and on pp 343-346 of the Anglican Service Book which is a niche, Anglo-Catholic equivalent.

The ritual isn’t commonly done (so says the priest I used to confess to when I was a more orthodox Anglican than today), and I suspect this is because it started becoming accepted in the 20th century at exactly the time belief in personal sin was becoming less intense, but it certainly exists.

Yeah, looking it up on Wiki, it seems to be more popular in the American branch:

*Auricular confession within mainstream Anglicanism became accepted in the second half of the 20th century; the 1979 Book of Common Prayer for the Episcopal Church in the USA provides two forms for it in the section “The Reconciliation of a Penitent.” *

But over here, whilst it hath always been considered a full and right Holy Sacrament pleasing unto the Almighty, it has mainly been squirrelled away into the General Confession included some place in the service for the congregation to murmur the automatic responses.

Anglican Priests may hear confessions one-on-one in a private setting if they’re unlucky enough to be buttonholed, but practically all religious of any religion used to act as psychiatrists to the laity. Unpaid, too.

Confession to a religious figure should be no more and no less protected than confession to any other person. If a parent learned of serious crime committed by their children then I’d place exactly the same responsibilities on them as well.

Why is that?

The Constitution places the exercise of religion in a special category, doesn’t it?

Simply because I think religion should have no special privileges over any other philosophy, worldview or political stance. Telling secret stuff to your priest should have no greater legal protection than doing so to your wife, family, local MP (I’m in the UK) etc.

I don’t know if it does or not but in any case, written constitutions are neither infallible nor immutable.

Have you considered Spousal privilege?

Which in my opinion, correctly, is not absolute. In the UK a spouse can be compelled to give evidence against their partner. The same should apply to a priest.

Nor do I claim that they are – simply that in the U.S., at the present moment in time, the constitution does grant religion such a special place. That’s a fact.

Obviously, changing the constitution if possible, and could eliminate that.

But in terms of realistic future outcomes, I rate such a change as extraordinarily unlikely.

Part of a valid sacrament of Confession is performing the penance that the priest gives to you. And if someone confesses a serious crime, a common part of the penance is ‘making it right’ with the victim. Like if you’ve stolen from someone, your penance might include returning it or reimbursing the victim. If it’s a major crime, penance might include making it right with society, like reporting to the secular authorities.

If the penitent does not perform the penance, it’s not a valid sacrament. (And another sin in itself.) But I don’t know if that gives the priest the ability to break the sacramental seal. I think the priest can’t; he can just work on the penitent trying to get him to complete his penance. But it’s been 60 years since my catechism classes, that might be wrong.

The problem, as I mentioned above, is that this requires a government definition of who is a valid confessor. If I consider my neighbor or my father (biological not spiritual) my confessor, why is the government allowed to say “No sorry you don’t have a proper religion so that person can’t be.”

Doesn’t (or at lest shouldn’t) non-establishment of religion mean exactly the government cannot say something is not a religion to be treated equally with all others.

Some of what you said is wrong.

Canon 960 of the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law provides that individual and integral confession and absolution are the necessary elements of the sacrament, along with (per 966) the priest hearing the confession possessing the faculty, under law, to exercise that power in respect of the faithful to whom he gives absolution. So performing the penance is a part of the process, but not a requirement for the reception of the sacrament.

The priest cannot reveal what is learned in confession even if the penitent refuses to complete the penance assigned, although that failure is, as you say, itself a separate sin; Can. 981 provides that the penitent is bound personally to fulfill the penance imposed.

(Having “the faculty,” simply means that the priest is permitted to hear the confession. Not every priest can hear every confession in every circumstance. Details on request.)