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Wilmington's Bishop KoenigScreenshot/Twitter

WILMINGTON, Delaware (LifeSiteNews) — The Catholic Diocese of Wilmington has condemned proposed legislation which would require priests to break the seal of the confessional in order to reveal details of child abuse or neglect. 

In the statement issued March 7, the diocese outlined the Catholic Church’s teaching on the seal of the confessional and its relation to the proposed bill HB 74.

The proposed bill, introduced to the Delaware General Assembly March 2 by Rep. Eric Morrison, “abrogates the privilege between priest and penitent in a sacramental confession relating to child abuse and neglect.” As such, Morrison’s bill would require priests to “report child abuse and neglect or to give or accept evidence in a judicial proceeding relating to child abuse or neglect.”

However, the Diocese of Wilmington – under Bishop William E. Koenig – has stated that Catholic priests would not conform to the law, which would violate a “fundamental aspect” of the Church’s teaching.

“The Sacrament of Confession and its seal of confession is a fundamental aspect of the Church’s sacramental theology and practice,” read the statement. “It is nonnegotiable.”

Koenig added that “No Catholic priest or bishop would ever break the seal of confession under any circumstances.” To do so would lead to the cleric incurring an “automatic excommunication,” said Koenig, which could “only be pardoned by the Pope himself.”

“It would be a clear violation of the First Amendment for the government to interfere in this most sacred and ancient practice of our faith,” he added.

HB 74 would not meaningfully help reduce any risk to “minors and vulnerable adults,” added the Diocese of Wilmington, since “priests are already mandatory reporters under Delaware’s child abuse reporting law in all circumstances other than the Sacrament of Confession.”

The diocesan policies require clergy to report “suspected incidents of child abuse” to the proper civil authorities, added Koenig.

With this in mind, he stated that the proposed bill would “infringe on the rights of a variety of faith communities,” but would also result in “a number of unintended consequences.” These, said Koenig, would include the legal requirement of something which could not practically be done, since “the overwhelming majority of sacramental confessions are anonymous and wholly impossible to meet without violating a fundamental tenet of our faith.”

“The Diocese of Wilmington considers the protection of the vulnerable to be one of the most important aims of public policy,” concluded Koenig. “However, this legislation would not advance that vital objective.”

The diocese’s statement is supported by the Church’s Code of Canon Law which notes in Canon 983 §1 that: 

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.

In 2019, the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary re-issued this teaching in a Note, stating that “[t]he inviolable secrecy of the Confession comes directly from the revealed divine law and has its roots in the very nature of the sacrament, to the point of not admitting any exception in the ecclesial sphere, nor, even less, in the civil sphere.”

The accompanying presentation of the Note pointed out how the seal of the confessional was incomparable “to the professional secrecy proper to certain professional groups (doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, etc.)” a distinction which is important “in order to prevent secular laws from applying to the seal, which is inviolable, the exceptions legitimately applied to professional secrecy.”

As St. Thomas Aquinas writes, since the priest is the minister of God and acts in persona Christi during the confession, he must act as God does and not violate the secret of the confessional:

The priest should conform himself to God, whose minister he is. But God does not reveal the sins which are made known to him in confession, but hides them. Neither, therefore, should the priest reveal them.

Wilmington is not the only diocese currently facing a threat to the seal of confession. The state legislatures of Washington and Vermont are also discussing bills on mandatory reporting of sexual abuse involving children. 

Spokane’s Bishop Thomas Daly stated last week that if the bill proposed in the state House, HB 1098, were enacted, the Catholic clergy would refuse to comply. “Priests and bishops will go to jail rather than break the seal of confession,” the bishop declared. “I’m confident that the priests in [the Diocese of Spokane] and my brother bishops would do that, so sacred is that bond.”

Daly warned that the bill would have a devastating impact on the diocesan clergy themselves. “I worry that that bond of trust that people have given their life for would suddenly seem to be up for renegotiation,” he said.


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