Milwaukee priest stripped of rights to hear confessions after pushing to violate sacrament in sex abuse cases

WDJT-TV, Ch. 58 [Milwaukee WI]

March 24, 2023

By Daniela Prizont-Cado

Clergy abuse survivors and advocates called out the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Friday after a retired Milwaukee priest was stripped of some of his rights after writing an opinion piece early last week.

Father James Connell appeared at a press conference Friday morning in front of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, to explain how Archbishop Jerome Listecki barred him from hearing confession and giving absolution after publicly advocating on behalf of rape and sexual violence victims at the hands of Catholic clergy.

On March 13, Father Connell wrote an Op-Ed for USA Today Network saying, “All people in Delaware should support the proposed HB 74 that would repeal the Delaware clergy-penitent privilege statute. The bill would essentially require all priests to report child abuse cases they hear during confession.

Peter Isely is the Director of Nate’s Mission, a Wisconsin group of advocates and survivors, who blatantly said, “There is a war on whistleblowers in this Archdiocese.”

Isely said Father Connell is just one of two priests in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who has publicly stood with survivors of rape and sexual violence at the hands of Catholic clergy.

“There has been legislation introduced in Wisconsin that would require clergy to report sexual abuse,” he said. “If you look at the current legislation, they don’t have to.”

The proposal was first introduced back in 2019, and again in February 2022. It awaits a hearing. “It’s a church law, it’s not a divine law, and the pope, then, could change the law,” explained Father Connell. “So, you got the law that seals confession, I am saying: comma, except in matters concerning a sexual abuse of a child or vulnerable adult.”

It’s called “Clergy-Penitent Privilege.” The law protects from disclosing to third parties what was said in private between a member of the clergy and a person seeking spiritual counseling.

The institution, however, says the privacy given during confession is sacred and should not be violated regardless of what’s said.

In fact, in a statement Wednesday, Archbishop Jerome Listecki argued that breaking the seal of confession, even for the reporting of child sexual abuse, is “gravely contrary to the definitive teachings of the Catholic Church about this sacrament.” 

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee told CBS 58 in a statement, in part, that Connell’s comments have “caused many Catholics to question if the privacy of the confessional can now be violated for any reason.”

Here’s the full statement on behalf of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee:

“Archbishop Listecki’s decision to remove the faculties of Fr. James Connell to hear confessions and validly grant absolution was in response to Fr. Connell’s escalating efforts to disseminate false information about the sacramental seal of confession.  These comments have caused many Catholics to question if the privacy of the confessional can now be violated for any reason.  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.  

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.  

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.” 

Father Connell, however, has been an advocate for years. Since 2010, he’s reported against sexual abuse cases. He alleges that Archbishop Listecki has refused to cooperate with Attorney General Josh Kaul’s ongoing statewide clergy abuse investigation.

“Laws that protect secrecy, laws that therefore protect the criminal and endanger a child or vulnerable adult, are immoral laws,” stated Connell during Friday’s press conference. Father Connell is calling to repeal this protection in Wisconsin and across the states.

“I will not keep quiet; I will not be silent. I will not keep quiet, I will not be silent, this is already too important,” he said.