Penitent’s Precedence over Priest’s Predicament

October 5, 2010

Earlier this year, we looked at the story of Father Mark Gruber, a popular Benedictine monk who was let go from St. Vincent College after porn was found on his computer. When the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette covered the story in February, TMatt noted that some of the hardest news stories to cover are personnel disputes inside private colleges and universities, particularly religious ones. It turns out he was particularly prescient.

This story has already had interesting twists and turns. Was Father Gruber’s on-the-record opposition to the college president a factor? What about the fact that his computer was accessible to students?

And Ann Rodgers is back with another twist — the role that private confession might have played in his firing.

As anyone who goes to confession can tell you, the seal of the confessional is sacred. My pastor hears as much or more about my deepest and darkest sins as anyone. I trust him completely to keep my confessions private. Confession, however underutilized in Christian churches, is a story that is difficult to write about. Usually we only see a story about it when something goes awry — say the police are trying to force a priest to reveal what the accused has said. First, you might want to read this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story about the defamation lawsuit Gruber filed against the school. Or you can read the lawsuit here.

Inside Higher Ed already revealed that an employee of St. Vincent had come forward to officials in the Youngstown Diocese and testified under oath that he had downloaded gay porn during the week in question and had told Father Gruber in confession.

In the latest from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Priest May Have Protected Confession,” we get more details. Perhaps most surprising is that the paper knew all this back in December of last year. But the student insisted on anonymity in part because he didn’t believe he could withstand public scrutiny. The paper confirmed his identity but chose not to publish the claim without corroboration. That came with last month’s lawsuit and police report. So the Post-Gazette gives a bit of back and forth. When the college asked the monk about the porn, he was evasive. The former student said he thinks that’s because he was protecting him. And when he asked Father Gruber what to do, Gruber told him not to reveal what he had confessed. The priest said that he didn’t think the student could withstand the revelation and that he didn’t want anyone to think he had pressured the penitent. All terribly interesting, right?

But the story takes it further, with Rodgers explaining how the monk’s decision stacks up with Catholic teaching:

If the former student’s account is true, Father Gruber is acting exactly as a priest should, said the Rev. Lawrence DiNardo, vicar of canonical services for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and a former president of the Canon Law Society of America. He isn’t involved in the case.

“If you receive information through the sacrament of reconciliation, whatever that information may be, you can never reveal that information to anyone, under any condition, at any time, for any reason,” he said.

That was the plot of the 1953 Alfred Hitchcock thriller “I Confess.” In the film, a penitent confessed to a murder and the priest was later charged with committing it. The priest couldn’t defend himself because he was bound by the sacrament. …

Many priests believe that the penitent can’t grant release from the seal, Father Vallone said.

“Even if everything were to come out and he told Father Gruber, ‘I release you,’ he hasn’t been released. The seal isn’t dependent on the participants, it’s dependent on the sacrament,” he said.

Concern about the penitent’s well-being takes precedence over the priest’s predicament, he said.

“The priest is the healer. With his lips he pronounces God’s words, ‘You are forgiven.’ That is meant to heal,” Father Vallone said. “What use would it be to pronounce healing words and allow a destructive action?”

Thinking of TMatt’s admonition to students, I bet there are even more twists and turns to this story. But as far as this particular angle was handled, Rodgers did a great job.


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