Wednesday 9 July 2014

I Confess ! - Seal of the Confessional in Louisiana

The  recent case of George Charlett Deceased No. 2013-C-2879 before the Louisiana Supreme Court has aroused concern amongst Catholic Clergy that it could be the first round in a battle to restrict the seal of the confessional

In the case the plaintiff, a child, alleges she was sexually touched by George Charlett a parishioner, not  a clergyman, at her local Church.  She alleges that she told her Parish Priest what was going on but he in effect did nothing.  The estate of George Charlett was being sued and also the Diocese for the alleged negligent actions of the Priest in not reporting the allegations to the authorities.  It is implied that she told the Priest whilst in confession though that specific point is a little unclear from the sparse facts in the Supreme Court judgment.

What is clear is that the Diocese of Baton Rouge tried to have the evidence of what was said in the Confessional excluded from the Girls evidence and that is the question that the Supreme Court was considering.  They, not surprisingly, decided that even though the law in Louisiana did recognise that conversations in the Confessional could attract privilege all that meant was that someone could not, in general, be forced to give evidence of what was said in the Confessional but that is very different to saying that someone can be prevented from giving evidence of what was said in the Confessional if they themselves wish to do so.  

The Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church is very strict about the inviolability of the seal of the confessional 

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.

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.

and so to that extent I can see the reason why the Diocese was concerned since if what the girl is saying is untrue the Priest is not allowed to say so or to give evidence about what was really said in the confessional.  This is the dilemma that famously faced Montgomery Clift in the  Alfred Hitchcock movie "I Confess"

NB: One area of confusion if you read the judgment and Catholic Canon Law is that in the judgment the phrase "the confessor" is used to refer to the girl ie the person who is making the confession whilst in Canon Law "the confessor" refers to the Priest ie the person hearing the confession.

I doubt if the case will be appealed to the US Supreme Court since it is still in its preliminary stages and no evidence has been heard yet.  As the Louisiana Supreme Court judgment noted 

Whether this particular priest owed this particular duty to the plaintiffs in this particular factual context is a mixed question of law and fact..............there exists material issues of fact concerning whether the communications between the child and the priest were confessions per se and whether the priest obtained knowledge outside the confessional that would trigger his duty to report. 

In other words preventing the evidence being heard was, at this stage, premature.  That said the issue of the "secrecy of the Confessional" and how it applies in situations where the law requires suspicions/knowledge of child abuse to be reported is likely to become an increasing issue in various jurisdictions over the next decade


Coincidences coincidences !!.  Shortly after I had published the above regarding Confession in the US the excellent Frank Cranmer put up a post 
which is well worth reading.  I agree with Franks conclusion
It seems likely, therefore, that the seal of the confessional will come under further scrutiny in the UK.

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