Released September 6, 2020; dated February 26, 2020
With reference to the Response of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference and Catholic Religious Australia to the Final Report of the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, published in August 2018, the Holy See affirms once more its resolute determination to confront and eradicate the abuse of minors and vulnerable persons, wherever it may occur in the Church. The Pope has sought to promote reform and vigilance at all levels within the Church and to encourage the efforts of local Churches in the same direction. That commitment has led to the adoption, both by the Holy See and by Dioceses, Episcopal Conferences and Religious Institutes of a wide range of measures, designed to ensure a proper response to such cases, including at the canonical level, as well as encouraging cooperation with civil authorities, both domestic and international.
In that spirit, the Holy See wishes to offer the following observations on a number of recommendations of the above-mentioned Final Report. For ease of reference, each of the recommendations in question is reproduced below, followed by the relevant observations, which have been kept as concise as possible.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should consult with the Holy See, and make public any advice received, in order to clarify whether:
a. information received from a child during the sacrament of reconciliation that they have been sexually abused is covered by the seal of confession
b. if a person confesses during the sacrament of reconciliation to perpetrating child sexual abuse, absolution can and should be withheld until they report themselves to civil authorities.
With its Note on the importance of the internal forum and the inviolability of the sacramental seal, published on 29 June 2019, the Apostolic Penitentiary has furnished useful indications for arriving at a considered response to the questions raised in the present recommendation. It will be recognised at once that the question of the confessional seal is one of great delicacy and that it is related intimately with a most sacred treasure of the Church’s life, that is to say, with the sacraments.
The aforementioned Note repeats the constant tradition of the Church with regard to the seal of confession, recalling that: “The confessor is never allowed, for any reason whatsoever, ‘to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner’ (can. 983, §1), just as ‘a confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded’ (can. 984, §1).” The Note helpfully clarifies the extent of the seal, which includes: “all the sins of both the penitent and others known from the penitent’s confession, both mortal and venial, both occult and public, as manifested with regard to absolution and therefore known to the confessor by virtue of sacramental knowledge.” The Note gives expression to the long-standing and constant teaching of the Church on the inviolability of the sacramental seal, as something demanded by the nature of the sacrament itself and thus as deriving from Divine Law. See for example: Fourth Lateran Ecumenical Council (1215), Cost. 21; Pope Clement VIII, Decr. Ad omnes superiores regulares (1593); Decr. S. Officii (1682); Pope Benedict XIV, Breve Suprema omnium ecclesiarum (1745).
However, even if the priest is bound to scrupulously uphold the seal of the confessional, he certainly may, and indeed in certain cases should, encourage a victim to seek help outside the confessional or, when appropriate, to report an instance of abuse to the authorities.
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