Framing the debate over sex abuse and the seal of the confessional

Crux [Denver CO]

March 28, 2023

By John Allen Jr.

ROME – It’s entirely possible that by the time this article appears, Father James Connell of Milwaukee, already barred from hearing confessions unless the penitent is in immediate danger of death, may be facing other suspensions – possibly from preaching, possibly from public ministry altogether.

A March 24 email to Connell relaying instructions from Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee made the threat crystal clear.

“The Archbishop wants you to understand that if it is too difficult for you to appropriately understand the limits of your ministerial permissions in the light of his decree, that he is willing to remove your faculties to preach publicly as well, and to also restrict your permission to publicly exercise ministry period,” it read.

“He will take those further steps if his ongoing assessment of your behavior and situation warrants it,” wrote Father Nathan Reesman, the Vicar for Clergy in Milwaukee.

The warning came two days after Listecki had removed Connell’s permission to hear confessions, following a March 12 op/ed piece by Connell in support of a bill in the Delaware legislature that would remove legal protections for the seal of the confessional.

Connell, now 80, is a canon lawyer and former vice-chancellor for the Milwaukee archdiocese, as well as a longtime advocate for survivors of clerical sexual abuse.

Should Connell face additional sanctions, the most likely effect would be to provide additional publicity for his campaign.

“Maybe Archbishop Listecki has done me a huge favor by doing all of this,” Connell told a reporter over the weekend. “I will not be quiet, you’re not going to silence me, and maybe this will be a trigger that’s going to get me out more and get more people interested in following me.”

Ireland, Australia, the U.K. and France have all heard widespread calls in the wake of clerical abuse scandals for eroding confessional secrecy, and some jurisdictions have already adopted laws eliminating clergy/penitent protections. It’s possible the Connell case in Milwaukee could lend momentum to similar efforts in the U.S., especially if further sanctions keep his views in the headlines.

If that happens, it will be important to track how the debate is framed.

In his op/ed piece, Connell presented the issue as a straight-forward contest between competing values – in this case, the protection of children and other potential abuse victims vs. religious freedom.

“Governments should intervene such that, while perhaps frustrating the free exercise of religion for some people, the greater good of protecting children from abuse or neglect would be enhanced for the common good of all people. Our society should protect children, rather than protecting culprits,” he wrote.

What such rhetoric presumes is that confessional secrecy obstructs efforts to fight abuse, so the only question is whether some other rationale, such as protecting religious freedom, is important enough to offset the harm.

Many anti-abuse experts, however, challenge that assumption. Their defense of confessional secrecy is premised not in the first place on religious freedom, but on what’s best for both actual and potential abuse victims.

“The sacrament of reconciliation can be an instrument in the fight against abuse,” wrote German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, one of the Catholic Church’s leaders in anti-abuse efforts, in 2021, following a French commission that raised questions about confessional secrecy.

Zollner argued that secrecy makes “people feel free to say things in confession they wouldn’t say anywhere else.” Historically and still today, he said, that “safe space” is used much more often by survivors and victims than by abusers.

“A victim of clerical sexual abuse as an adult made the sometimes-neglected point to me that many victims feel guilty and find it extremely difficult to speak for the first time about the unspeakable,” Zollner wrote. “She worries that if you cannot be absolutely sure that what you say in confession will remain confidential, one of the few safe places where starting to talk about an experience of abuse is possible may be lost.”

That was more or less the point made by a group of abuse survivors in Australia in 2020, at a time when several states and territories in the country either had already eliminated any clergy/penitent protection or were preparing to do so.

“The seal offers victims a safe, secure and watertight place where they can be listened to without cost, where they can remain anonymous, and can decide what they’re ready, and not ready, to share – and all of this in complete confidence,” a spokesperson for the group said.

“The confessional seal as it presently stands literally saves lives and offers every abuse victim the chance to begin to heal,” he said, adding that “the government’s bill threatens this safe space; it destroys hope and will lead to more suicides.”

Four years earlier, Australian Father Frank Brennan made a similar argument about the confessional, though with regard to abusers rather than victims.

“Not one child will be saved by abolishing the seal of the confessional,” Brennan wrote at the time.

“With the seal intact, the occasional pedophile might find a listening ear to assist with the decision to turn himself in,” he said. “With the seal breached by law, confession will be unavailable to careful serious offenders except at the hands of those priests who have declared that they will conscientiously refuse to comply with the law.”

Most secular legislators, pundits and child welfare advocates have no experience of the Catholic confessional, so it’s easy for them to assume instinctively that any form of secrecy is bad. Given falling percentages of believers who utilize the sacrament, many Catholics themselves may leap to the same conclusion.

In that context, it’s especially important to hear from people who do have experience of how the sacrament actually works, confessors and penitents alike.

Let’s face it: However many punishments are imposed on dissidents such as Connell, the issue he’s raising isn’t going away. To defend the confessional seal, the church will have to offer more than discipline – it’ll have to convince a skeptical public that confidentiality isn’t the enemy of truth, but a vital instrument for bringing it to light.