Protecting Our Belief in the Seal of the Confessional

Friday, Feb. 02, 2024
By The Most Rev. Oscar A. Solis
Bishop of Salt Lake City

Greetings of Christ’s peace and love!

I would like to call your attention to the fact that the Utah Legislature once again is proposing legislation that will impact a spiritual tradition long practiced by our Catholic Church.

The Sacrament of Confession has been central to the practice of our Catholic faith for 2,000 years. This divine gift from Jesus helps us prepare to receive the Eucharist and to participate fully in our faith. During the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as it also is known, we confess and seek absolution of our sins from a priest, who sits in the confessional as our living conduit to our God.

What is said in the confessional is between the penitent and God, and is private. All priests are required by Church law (Code of Canon Law Canon 983 §1) to maintain complete secrecy about what is heard during Confession. Knowing that Confession is a confidential, sacred conversation with God encourages Catholics to seek out and receive God’s mercy; this also allows them to undertake reconciliation not only with God but also with their communities and victims.

This year the Utah Legislature again is considering legislation that would allow clergy members, including Catholic priests, to report to law enforcement ongoing abuse or neglect even if this information is gained during a confession. When similar bills were proposed in 2020 and again last year, I asked all parishioners in our diocese to help defend our religious rights and oppose that bill. This year is a little different. We do not oppose the proposed legislation, as initially written, but we are concerned about the possibility that the language could be changed to require that Catholic priests report such abuse even if they have learned about the abuse solely during the Sacrament of Confession. If this requirement were to become law, Catholic priests would face the untenable choice of breaking the law or being excommunicated, because breaking the Seal of Confession means automatic excommunication for a Catholic priest.

The Catholic Church and the Diocese of Salt Lake City remain committed to protecting innocent children and vulnerable adults from abuse and neglect. However, as I wrote last year, there is no proof that forcing Catholic priests to break the Seal of the Confessional will help achieve that, and legislation that would require a priest to do so violates our right to practice our religion. Placing a priest in the position of losing his vocation or facing criminal charges seems to be a blatant violation of our First Amendment protections. Priests have a sacred duty to keep in confidence any information they hear from Confession; otherwise, they will violate the trust and privacy of the penitent.

When hearing Confession, priests are not like therapists or teachers or other professionals; in the confessional the priest sits as our living conduit to our God. Before granting absolution, a priest hearing a confession of criminal wrongdoing may require the penitent to self-report to law enforcement, seek counseling, offer to talk with the person outside of the confessional and accompany him or her in the act of self-reporting, or require some other similar act of restorative justice through penance.

The motivation of various “abuse reporting” bills is laudatory. All people of good will want to ensure the safety of children and protect them from abuse, but there is no evidence that forcing priests to disclose cases of abuse learned from the confessional would have prevented a single case of child abuse. On the other hand, bills requiring priests to reveal what is said to them in a purely religious act of Confession will do little more than deny people the free exercise of their religion, subsequently denying victims a crucial opportunity to receive help and healing.

Therefore, I respectfully ask our legislators to oppose any legislation that curtails religious liberties, and I encourage all the Church faithful to talk to their respective representatives, give them a call, send a letter or email and make them aware of the centrality of the Seal of the Confessional to our faith.

The Catholic Church believes that sexual misconduct of any kind by Church personnel is an affront to human dignity of the person and the mission of the Church. The spiritual well-being of all victims, their families and others in the community is always of particular concern to the Church. The Diocese of Salt Lake City takes allegations of sexual misconduct involving minors and vulnerable persons seriously. Any allegation received is immediately reported to law enforcement agencies and sent to the diocese’s Protection of Children and Young People Independent Review Board for further necessary actions.

Over the past 30 years, the diocese has developed and implemented a safe environment program, publicized standards of conduct for its priests and deacons as well as diocesan employees, volunteers and any other Church personnel in positions of trust who have regular contact with children and young people. In 1990, the diocese also implemented written policies and procedures regarding reporting and handling of sexual misconduct claims. Updated policy reflects the mandates of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter from 2002.

We have posted on the diocesan website the complete list of all priests against whom credible allegations of sexual abuse involving minors have been reported since 1950, to provide the transparency that will help repair at least some of the wounds left by the wrongful actions of priests who abused their sacred trust.

The diocese also has publicized ways to report such crimes, and encourages anyone who has been a victim of abuse or exploitation by clergy, religious or lay Church personnel to make such a report. The victim assistance coordinator is available to assist in making a report; the contact number for this coordinator is 801-328-8641, ext. 344.

We continue to pray for the victims and their families and ask their forgiveness for our failure to protect them. We remain committed in addressing clergy abuse allegations within the diocese with the hope of eliminating this scourge that has hurt so many children, to remove from ministry those who committed the crime, and to help those victims betrayed by men they believed they could trust in their healing process.

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