The Seal of the Confessional is absolute. The confessor is forbidden from disclosing the penitent’s sins and anything else the penitent says in Confession, and he is forbidden from disclosing the mere fact that the penitent went to Confession. Any direct violation of the Seal is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, and carries the penalty of automatic excommunication as well as the possibility of other penalties from proper authority in the Church.
Can. 983 §1. The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.
No reason, however grave, would permit a confessor to reveal anything from a valid Confession or attempted Confession. However, a penitent can reveal his own sins, and can dispense a confessor from the Seal in a particular case. For if the confessor has the penitent’s permission, it is not a betrayal.
§2. The interpreter, if there is one, and all others who in any way have knowledge of sins from confession are also obliged to observe secrecy.
The seal also binds an interpreter in the Confessional, as well as anyone who inadvertently overhears some of a Confession.
In addition, if you happen to see someone in line for Confession, you cannot disclose that fact. Suppose, while waiting in line for Confession, you see a neighbor also waiting for Confession. If you later mention it to a friend or family member or to anyone else, it is a grave violation of the seal. Someone might conclude, whether correctly or not, that said person sinned gravely. Someone might know of a circumstance outside the Confessional, and adding the knowledge that said person was in line for Confession, they might conclude that he sinned gravely and was there to admit that particular sin.
If you see a famous person in line for Confession, you cannot disclose that fact to anyone. If you see a priest or deacon or religious in line for Confession, you cannot even say to your friend that you think well of said person for going to Confession. On the other hand, if a priest says, during Mass in his sermon, that he went to Confession on a particular occasion, then you can mention it.
If you are a photographer, whether professional or amateur, photographing at an event where some people are in line for Confession, you cannot take any photograph of any person in line for Confession, nor during Confession, without their express permission.
The penitent is not bound by the Seal. A penitent can disclose, privately or publicly, the fact that he went to Confession, and, if he so wishes, the contents of his Confession. He can also disclose what the confessor said. And if the confessor says or does something sinful in the Confessional, such as asserting heresy, the penitent can disclose it. The Seal protects the penitent, in order to save souls. It does not protect the words or behavior of the confessor.
However, the confessor cannot disclose anything he himself said to a particular penitent in Confession. His own words, in so far as they are particular, are under the Seal. He can disclose the usual formula he uses for Confession, or the set of prayers he often recommends. But nothing particular from any Confession or set of Confessions can be disclosed.
In my opinion, even broad expressions about sets of Confessions should be avoided. For example, a priest should not say that old women tend to ramble in Confession, or that hearing the Confessions of nuns is like being pelted with popcorn, or anything else about sets of Confessions, even if it is broad and does not disclose sin. However, I would allow that a priest can lament that many persons do not know the correct formula for Confession or do not have an Act of Contrition memorized, or that few persons go to Confession at all.
Can. 984 §1. A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.
§2. A person who has been placed in authority cannot use in any manner for external governance the knowledge about sins which he has received in confession at any time.
Thus, the confessor cannot reassign a penitent away from a role in the parish that offers the penitent near occasion of sin. This restriction may seem harsh. But it is necessary for the salvation of souls. Some sinners will not go to Confession, if they know that confessing any particular sin will result in some detriment or will have an effect on external governance.
What options, then, does a confessor have, if a penitent confesses a grave crime?
1. No attempted Confession
If a person enters the confessional room, and admits to a crime or threatens a crime, without any attempt to receive the Sacrament of Confession, the Seal does not apply.
Many years ago, I was in a church at the usual time for Confession. The elderly priest was in a booth in the side of the Church, with curtained booths on either side (which is the old style of a Confessional). A couple of youths (very approximately 12 years of age) ran up to the Confessional, pushed aside one of the curtains, shouted something obnoxious, and then withdrew. The priest came out of the Confessional and reprimanded them. He did not break the Seal, because there was no attempt to receive the Sacrament.
But in every case where the penitent receives the valid Sacrament, or even merely attempts to receive it, the Seal applies. And in all cases of doubt, the doubt favors the Seal. Then, too, if there is no valid Sacrament, no attempt at all to receive the Sacrament, and no doubt, even then, the Seal applies, due to the possibility of scandal, unless it is a case of grave necessity.
2. Permission of the Penitent
A penitent can disclose his or her own sins which were confessed in the Confessional. A penitent can also give permission to the confessor to speak to another person, privately or publicly, about the contents of his or her confession. However, in nearly all cases, it is unwise for the penitent to do so. The Seal of the Confessional is for the benefit of the penitent’s own salvation and the salvation of others. Frequently giving permission to disclose the contents of any Confession might cause scandal by making other sinners reluctant to Confession as the Seal might seem less secure to them.
But if a penitent confesses some grave sin, which he or she committed against another person, the confessor can ask permission to speak or act outside the confessional, in order to help the penitent avoid near occasions of that sin — such as reassigning the penitent to a different role in the parish. The confessor can also strongly advise the penitent to quit a job or volunteer position, or to make other changes to avoid sin in the future. However, the confessor cannot withhold absolution, from an apparently contrite penitent, due to a refusal to comply with said advice.
Consider the case of a minor who mentions in the confessional that she was abused by some adult. The confessor can ask the permission of the penitent to speak or act outside the confessional so as to protect the child from further abuse, and so as to bring the criminal to justice. The confessor can strongly advise the penitent to disclose the abuse outside the Confessional. But lacking permission from the penitent, the confessor cannot break the Seal.
3. Interior Use of Knowledge
In cases of grave necessity, such as danger of a grave crime being committed against a minor, the confessor can use knowledge from the confession interiorly. First, he can pray to God for that child’s well-being. Second, if the child complains of abuse from an adult known to the confessor, such as a parishioner involved in some activity in the parish, the confessor can choose to keep an eye on that person’s behavior, be more involved in the particular activity in the parish, and be alert to any indications of a problem. Then, based on what he observes outside the confessional, he can act. His interior use of the knowledge from a confession, in cases of grave necessity, is morally permissible, as long as there is no danger of disclosure. And whatever knowledge he has obtained outside the Confessional can be used to protect the innocent.
How Often is the Seal Broken?
I’ve been to Confession very many times in my life, with many different priests, and I know of no instance at all of any confessor breaking the Seal in my case. It seems to me a rare sin. However, I have heard of cases where a priest has broken the Seal, in one way or another. So it does happen.
Why can’t a priest break the Seal in cases of grave crimes? It is because the eternal salvation of souls is more important than preventing crimes and bringing criminals to justice. If there were exceptions to the Seal, some sinners might not confess grave sin and, as a result, some would lose their salvation forever.
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