Breaking the confessional seal is a bet on rogue priests

The very sharp Waleed Aly has joined the debate over whether Catholic child abuse justifies a legal requirement for priests to break the confessional seal. Aly’s take: it’s an argument with almost no practical consequences, because most priests see excommunication as a far worse punishment than prison.

… Canon law prohibits a priest from revealing a confession even under the threat of his own death. Should we expect him to buckle under the threat of a prison sentence?

Here it’s essential to understand that any priest who violates the confessional seal faces excommunication.

That might mean nothing to you … But you are not the one hearing the confession. What matters is what this means to priests and, in Catholic terms, excommunication is as serious as it gets – far more serious than any prison sentence. This leaves us searching for a very strange creature indeed: someone devoted enough to enter the priesthood, but not devoted enough to care about eternal damnation. And we need lots of them. We’re betting on a team of rogue priests. That doesn’t sound like a plan to me.

You can’t legislate away people’s religious convictions, however much you might want to.

Aly notes that there’s little evidence of priests describing their crimes in confessional anyway. Does anyone know of evidence?

Aly also argues that the break-the-confessional-seal argument represents “irreligious people trying to address a religious problem with brute secular force”. Given that Catholics like Tony Abbott, Christopher Pyne and Barry O’Farrell are among the advocates of overriding the sanctity of the confessional, that characterisation seems wrong. But the non-religious (a category which includes me) might do well to think twice before piling on to this particular argument. It’s all fight and no pay-off.

About David Walker

David Walker runs publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS ( and is an editor and writer for hire. David has previously edited Acuity magazine and the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has written on economics, business and public policy from Melbourne, Adelaide and the Canberra Press Gallery.
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14 Responses to Breaking the confessional seal is a bet on rogue priests

  1. Nicholas Gruen says:


    You have breached Troppo’s “Headings policy”. The policy is that blog posts have headings. ;)

    On the substance there are middle grounds that are also interesting. One need not compel priests to divulge details they’ve heard in confession. I wonder if the Catholic Church could say that while it will not compel priests to divulge confessions, they will permit them to – and not excommunicate those who feel duty bound to do so.

    But (I think like you), I don’t have any strong views that I know the right thing to do here.

  2. Pedro says:

    Of course, the RCC could change policy, as NG suggests.

    I don’t have a dog in the fight, but as a general principle, what is the public policy grounds for respecting the sanctity of the confessional? I can see a public policy justification for protection of journalist sources, but not for religious scruples.

  3. conrad says:

    “irreligious people trying to address a religious problem with brute secular force”

    It’s not a religious problem, it’s a serious problem of an organization of which some aspect of religious practice is in conflict with the law. Since we don’t live in a religious state, the law should take precedence. If it didn’t, religious organizations could justify any number of things — and why stop at religion? Why should religion take precedence over, for example, common cultural practices? Given this, unless the church can think of a particularly good reason as to why they should be excused in this instance, then I don’t see why we should accept such an argument. I also find very hard to imagine that there are any good reasons to find an exception in this situation (do we really want people excused for covering up extremely serious crime? I don’t think so).

    • john r walker says:

      Conrad Waleed Aly is right, legal force would not work .

      It might be possible and desirable for the Catholic church to freely choose to modify/change the confessional rules re this sort of very serious stuff .

      • conrad says:

        Legal force won’t work 100% on all sorts of nasty things that have strong religious or cultural bases (e.g., genital mutilation). This doesn’t mean we should just say “okay, that’s all fine and dandy for now, can you please change your practices sometime”. If it works 1 out of 10 times, that’s better than 0 out of 10 times unless it creates really bad externalities (like, say, the war on drugs).

        • john r walker says:

          “It’s all fight and no pay-off.”
          It could only divert attention from the real issues. Because Pedophiles rarely if ever recognise that what they is wrong they are unlikely to have ever sought confession ,forgiveness in the first place.

          In truth many regard the child as the ‘sinner’ hence the frequent linking to wide and additional, sadistic behavior.

        • john r walker says:

          Bloddy typo
          Pedophiles rarely if ever recognise that what they do is wrong, they are unlikely to have ever sought confession ,forgiveness in the first place.

        • conrad says:

          We’re at the end of the replies, but I think the following is probably true if I summarize where we are up to now:
          1) Some priests know other priests are pedophiles. I doubt this is under dispute
          2) Some priests have told other priests about this in confidence

          It seems your argument is that this isn’t likely to have happened much as a confession, so if it has, we shouldn’t worry about it. That first part of this might well be true.

          How about exactly the same situation where I replace priest with terrorist:
          1) Some terrorists know other terrorist are doing bad things. I doubt this is under dispute
          2) Some terrorists have told other terrorists about this in confidence

          1) most terrorist probably think they are correct (just like our priests),
          2) the punishment for one terrorist divulging on an other is probably tougher than that of priests (presumably death), and
          3) I assume that thanks to the type of organizational structure of some terrorists groups, they really don’t talk to each other about it too much and are in fact forbidden to do so.

          Using exactly the same logic, it should be entirely legitimate for one terrorist not to divulge on another because the other one told him about his bad deeds in confidence, and that doesn’t happen very often. As it happens, I doubt most terrorists really will divulge info on each other since both the parties presumably agree the bad deeds they are doing are actually justified (hopefully unlike priests), but that doesn’t mean we should forget about this as a crime simple because it doesn’t happen much.

        • john r walker says:

          As best as I understand no records of what is said in confession boxes are kept.

          I suspect a law based approach would at best give little useful information at a price of creating even more resistance to getting at confessions/evidence spoken out side the confessional box(just as torture is not a productive way of getting acurate information out of terrorists).

    • conrad says:

      John, how about you now replace priest with imam. Now you have terrorist confesses to imam. Should the imam remain silent, and should there be no legal consequences if something happened?

      I also don’t think the law is purely for punishment incidentally. You have have laws basically to signal various moral values of the community. I imagine there are many criminal laws like this given that many crimes tend to be of low frequency.

      (As it happens, I actually suspect in this case we see the opposite — which is how I presume the police get at least some of their info).

      • john r walker says:

        Conrad the post was about the workability of a law on ‘confessionals’- the point as always in this awful business is that unfortunately without a different approach by the church itself it is likely to be counter productive.

        As for “You have have laws basically to signal various moral values of the community.” Laws that are not enforceable bring the law into disrespect. How would you prove that something unreported was said in confession?

  4. GrueBleen says:

    I’m having a little conceptual difficulty with this one: unless the priest breaks the confessional seal in the first place, how are we going to find out that the priest has heard a ‘criminal’ confession ?

    Are priests going to go around saying “Oh, a paedophile confessed to child molestation to me yesterday, but I’m not going to tell anybody who and what it was” ?

  5. Tim Macknay says:

    For anyone who’s interested in the current situation of priest-penitent privilege in Australia, this article provides a good overview.

  6. wmmbb says:

    So confidentiality is sacrosanct and has never been breached. A cynic has to regard such a proposition as nonsense, but why not anyway allow for an exception for criminal wrongdoing. I don’t know what difference the processes of the confessional make, but why not allow for human limitations, including allowing priests to marry, while acknowledging the good business sense of celibacy (which apparently goes back to the Council of Elvira in the fourth century). Still if any institution, religious or otherwise, shows a systematic disregard for the duty of care, public funding should be withheld, preferably in whole.

    Aside from the implementation of retributive justice, it is an odd moral argument being made by which the balance favours institutional process and practice over the well being of individual people. I wonder what a certain Avatar from the first century would have said about that.

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