The deathbed confession of an 1853 murder

Deseret News [Salt Lake City, UT]

September 2, 2022

By Tad Walch

I learned a great deal while I spent several days researching and writing an in-depth look at religious and legal views of the confessions people make to bishops and other clergy. Not all of it made it into my story.

Let me share an amazing story that I had to leave on the cutting-room floor, so to speak. But first, here are the first two paragraphs of my article. I hope you’ll read it and benefit from what I found:

Priests, pastors and bishops from various faiths say both sides of an apparent collision of ideals are sacred to them: protecting children from all forms of abuse, and keeping confessions confidential so penitents feel safe and motivated to acknowledge and stop their sinful — and sometimes criminal — behavior.

The tension between doctrines about confessions and the impulse to protect children through mandatory reporting laws raises important legal, societal and religious questions about how religious leaders try to focus on and prioritize rescuing victims of abuse while also providing spiritual help to the person who has confessed.

I came across this story as I researched the doctrines of numerous faiths about confessions, including Catholicism’s belief in the confession seal, which is that they are so sacred a priest should be excommunicated automatically for revealing the identity of the person or the content of his or her confession. I learned some priests had been sainted for keeping confessions confidential despite the torture of the inquisition or other sufferings.

This true story about a priest in Kyiv was striking. Here’s what I wrote, but had to cut out of my story for relevance and space:

A killer walked into the chapel and stashed his murder weapon behind the altar, then walked into the confessional and told Father Jan Kobylowicz that he’d killed a man.

Afterward, the assassin lied to a local judge, saying that he’d seen Father Kobylowicz carry the shotgun into the church in Kyiv on the day of the murder. Bound by the inviolable Catholic seal of confession, Father Kobylowicz refused to testify on his own behalf and was convicted of murder, defrocked and sent to prison in Siberia.

On his deathbed two decades after the 1853 murder, the real killer admitted he had used the confessional seal to frame Father Kobylowicz, but it was too late. Father Kobylowicz had died in prison two months earlier.