Seal of the confessional

Philippine Daily Inquirer [Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines]

October 11, 2021

By Ramon J. Farolan

First of all, congratulations to Maria Ressa, the first Filipino winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Sometimes, the Almighty gives us something to cheer about after being relegated to the bottom of the heap in almost all other activities.

Three years ago, in October 2018, I wrote a number of articles on the problem of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic Church clerics and on the plight of married priests in the Philippines. I mentioned that I was first baptized as an Aglipayan. My relatives on my mother’s side were high-ranking Aglipayan ministers. Shortly after my mother passed away, my surrogate mom, a devout Catholic belonging to the Order of Mt. Carmel and who raised me as her own, had me rebaptized in Catholic Church rites by Belgian missionaries in Baguio City. Since then, I have remained a Catholic although not in agreement with some positions of the Church from time to time.

Last week, a major investigation in France revealed that more than 200,000 adolescents mostly boys aged 10 to 13 had been sexually abused by between 2,900 and 3,200 French priests over the past 70 years. Pope Francis said he was saddened and ashamed by the Catholic Church’s inability to deal with sexual abuse of children. “This is a moment of shame,” he said. The report is nothing new but it still shocks a lot of people. Through the years, scandals over the sexual abuse of young people by priests, bishops, and even Cardinals, have made it clear that it remains one of the most serious problems facing the Roman Catholic Church.

The investigation report was issued by an “Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church” that was set up in response to calls for greater action in addressing the problem. The Commission headed by Jean-Marc Sauvé, a highly-respected magistrate, was made up of 22 legal professionals, doctors, historians, sociologists, and theologians with the mandate to investigate allegations of child sexual abuse by clerics dating back to 1950. The work was started by calling for statements from witnesses and setting up a telephone hotline for receiving messages and information. After two-and-a-half years of work, Sauvé concluded that the abuse was systemic, covered by a “veil of silence” and that the Church had shown “profound and even cruel indifference towards the victims.” One Commission member noted that “it wasn’t just a few isolated, deviant individuals, but a whole organization, a way of thinking, social relations, organized silence and inadequate institutional response.”

Many of these investigations in other countries like Germany and the United States, among others, were initiated by the Conference of Bishops in the country concerned. In the case of France, the Commission was set up by the Bishops’ Conference of France headed by Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, who was appointed Archbishop of Reims by Pope Francis in 2018, together with a national congregation conference.

From various news items, the general recommendations by the Commission appear to be similar with that of any organization facing administrative problems: “Overhaul of its internal legal system, reform its governance, rethink training and look at the overwhelming power wielded by priests.” Nothing really unusual or radical.

However, there is one development, call it unusual that bears watching. As the report was being publicized, President Emmanuel Macron ordered Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin to summon Archbishop Beaufort to explain certain remarks he had made in an interview regarding the secrecy of the confessional. In this interview, when pressed on whether the confessional seal took precedence over French laws, he declared that the seal of the confessional is stronger and above the laws of the Republic. “It creates a free space for speaking before God,” Moulins-Beaufort said. His words were in accordance with Vatican guidelines that crimes discovered confession are subject to “the strictest bond of the sacramental seal.” On the other hand, France has a mandatory reporting law with sanctions covering any criminal activity. The French government spokesman, Gabriel Attal, said: “Nothing takes precedence over the laws of the republic in our country.” The Vatican has strongly defended the confessional seal in response to mandatory reporting laws around the world.

The Bishops’ Conference of France said in a statement that Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort “will be happy to discuss with the interior minister the meaning of the sacrament of confession for Catholics and the theological, spiritual, and canonical foundations of the seal of confession.” He described Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin’s request as an invitation, rather than a summon. The meeting is scheduled for tomorrow.