A retired priest pushed to require clergy to report sex-abuse confessions; now he’s banned from taking confession

Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee WI]

March 24, 2023

By Sophie Carson

Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki has stripped a retired priest of his permission to hear confessions after the priest advocated publicly for requiring clergy to report abuse revealed in confidential settings.

The Rev. James Connell said he got word Wednesday that Listecki had ordered him to stop speaking publicly about repealing what’s known as clergy-penitent privilege. Listecki also removed Connell’s “faculty” to hear confessions and offer absolution.

Connell, who for years has worked alongside anti-clergy sexual abuse groups, has been pushing to remove exceptions in states’ laws on mandatory reporting that allow clergy to keep quiet if an allegation of sexual abuse is revealed to them in a private setting like a Catholic confessional.

Wisconsin is among 33 states with laws that protect conversations between clergy and penitents, or those confessing their sins, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Six states have laws that require clergy to report cases of abuse no matter what.

The Catholic Church views anything revealed to a priest during confession as under a “seal” that cannot be broken in any circumstance.

But Connell, who retired in 2013, believes that both state and church law should be changed to make an exception for reports of child sexual abuse. In January, he began emailing lawmakers in all 33 states to push for change.

“Laws that protect secrecy, laws that therefore protect the criminal and endanger the child or a vulnerable adult, are immoral laws,” Connell told reporters Friday. “They need to be repealed.”

In Delaware, one state lawmaker, Rep. Eric Morrison, saw Connell’s email and got in touch. Then Morrison introduced a bill to remove clergy-penitent privilege from the state’s law on mandatory abuse reporting.

And Connell wrote an opinion piece supporting the bill that published March 13 in the Delaware News Journal. He believes that piece is what prompted Listecki to bar him from hearing confessions.

In a statement posted to the archdiocese website, Listecki said Connell’s comments “are gravely contrary to the definitive teachings of the Catholic Church about this sacrament.”

“The false assertions of Father James Connell have caused understandable and widespread unrest among the People of God, causing them to question if the privacy of the confessional can now be violated, by him or any other Catholic priest,” Listecki continued.

More:First came sex abuse allegations at the abbey. Then secret payments. Then a suicide.

Milwaukee Archdiocese says ‘seal of confession’ must never be violated

Speaking at a news conference Friday, Connell disagreed that he was eroding trust in the confidentiality of the confessional.

“If you’re not confessing something, abusing and neglecting kids, what do got to worry about?” Connell said. “Let’s remove the obstacle of confidentiality so that police and law enforcement can do their jobs.”

The Rev. Nathan Reesman, vicar for clergy for the archdiocese of Milwaukee, said Connell was barred from confession because of his “escalating efforts to disseminate false information about the sacramental seal of confession.”

“There can be absolutely no justification under any circumstance for a priest to violate the sacramental seal of confession, and this teaching of the Church must be safeguarded for the good of the faithful,” he said in a statement provided by the archdiocese.

Connell was joined at the news conference by representatives from Nate’s Mission, an anti-clergy-abuse group based in Wisconsin. Its director, Peter Isely, said Listecki’s action against Connell would have a chilling effect on other priests who might speak out on abuse issues.

“There is a war on whistleblowers in this archdiocese,” Isely said.

Archdiocese officials pushed back strongly on that assertion.

“Any implication by Nate’s Mission that the decision to remove Fr. Connell’s permission to hear confessions conveys a lack of commitment by the Church to protect against abuse is false and misleading. The issue at stake is the correct understanding of the seal of confession,” Reesman said in a statement.

Reesman continued: “The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has a zero tolerance policy regarding the sexual abuse of minors and our stringent abuse prevention measures have led to more than 12 years with not one substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against an archdiocesan priest.”

Effort to remove Wisconsin law’s clergy exemption failed in 2022

Under Wisconsin law, clergy are among the roughly 30 professions known as mandatory reporters who must report abuse or neglect of a child when they learn of it. But if the clergy person receives the information in a confidential or confessional setting, and they have a duty or expectation from their religious tradition to keep it secret, they are not legally required to report the abuse.

Six state legislators in 2022 sponsored a bill that would remove the exception for clergy. It did not get a public hearing or floor vote and died.

The night after Connell learned he could not hear confessions, he barely slept, he said. But Thursday night, he slept soundly. He woke up Friday with the realization that he’d been given an opportunity: “When one door closes, another opens,” he said.

Connell on Friday was not sure what would happen to him next. He believes Listecki could penalize him for continuing to speak out on the issue after being ordered to stop.

“I will not keep quiet. I will not be silent,” Connell said. “This is all too important.”

At 80 years old, Connell said he’s going to devote the time he has left to issues like abuse in the church.

“It’s about Jesus Christ, it’s about truth and justice, it’s about doing things the right way. And the church has it wrong when it protects all that secrecy,” he said.