MILWAUKEE (LifeSiteNews) — Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, stripped a priest of his faculties to hear confessions after the priest publicly endorsed a bill that would force Catholic clergy to break the seal of confession.
In a statement issued March 22, the archbishop stated, “Sadly, I have learned that Father James Connell, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who is now retired from active ministry, has continued to disseminate false information about the sacramental seal of confession. He has publicly advocated for the removal of the legal protection of the confessional seal, suggesting there are situations where it is permissible to violate it.”
Connell had published an op-ed in USA Today titled, “Why Delaware’s clergy-penitent privilege law should be repealed.” In the essay he argued that “all people in Delaware should support the proposed HB 74 that would repeal the Delaware clergy-penitent privilege statute.”
Claiming that the seal of silence for the Catholic sacrament of confession is a shelter for abusers, endangers victims, and is rooted in an absence of truth, the priest stated that “no valid freedom of religion argument rooted in the absence of truth can provide a moral justification for sheltering perpetrators of abuse or neglect of children from their deserved punishment, while also endangering potential victims.”
He went on to endorse government intervention to coerce priests into revealing what is confessed by penitents, saying, “governments should intervene such that, while perhaps frustrating the free exercise of religion for some people, the greater good of protecting children from abuse or neglect would be enhanced for the common good of all people.”
The archbishop denounced the priest’s position and declared the seal of confession absolutely inviolable, admitting of no exception. Reaffirming Church teaching, Listecki unequivocally stated, “Such assertions are gravely contrary to the definitive teachings of the Catholic Church about this sacrament. The Catholic Church firmly declares that the sacramental seal of confession is always, and in every circumstance without exception, completely inviolable. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee fully assents to this fundamental tenet of the Catholic faith.”
Lamenting the disquieting effect caused by the priest’s statements, the archbishop informed the faithful of the diocese that he was stripping Connell of all faculties to hear confessions and grant sacramental absolution, a disciplinary measure that holds even outside the archdiocese.
The archbishop declared, “The false assertions of Father James Connell have caused understandable and widespread unrest among the People of God, causing them to question if the privacy of the confessional can now be violated, by him or any other Catholic priest.”
“I have informed Father James Connell that effective immediately he is to cease all such erroneous communications that distort the teachings of the Church about the confessional seal. I have also immediately removed the canonical faculties of Father Connell to validly celebrate the Sacrament of Confession and to offer absolution, here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and thereby also in the Catholic Church around the world.”
Reaffirming the archdiocese’s commitment to protecting persons from abuse, Listecki said that this nonetheless in no way allows any action, public policy, or legislation that would violate or threaten the seal of silence surrounding the sacrament of confession.
He wrote, “The Archdiocese of Milwaukee remains fully committed to the protection of all people from acts of abuse and neglect. However, our commitment to this protection in no way allows us to endorse or advocate for any practice, policy, or legislative action that would threaten the inviolable nature of the confessional seal, and the clergy-penitent privilege.”
As Lepanto Institute head Michael Hichborn has exposed, this is the third time Connell has publicly advocated for the removal of the legal protection of the seal of confession for Catholic priests and penitents.
Connell first mounted a public attack on the seal of confession in a 2018 op-ed published in the National Catholic Reporter. In the article titled, “Now is the time to modify the Catholic Church’s ‘seal of confession,’” the priest made similar claims to those he published this month, alleging that “sexual abusers go unreported to civil and church authorities” on account of the fact that “Catholic Church law unconditionally forbids any priest from betraying a penitent, for any reason whatsoever.”
Then in May 2019, with shocking gall, the priest sued the states of Wisconsin, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Vermont, and Pennsylvania in a bid to get the states to revoke their constitutional and legal protections for the clergy-penitent privilege.
The seal of confession and its legal protection is very much a live issue with three other state legislatures presently debating bills that would remove its privilege under law: Utah, Vermont, and Washington. Several bishops have now publicly defended the inviolability of the confessional seal, and Church history holds up the witness of numerous priests who have suffered martyrdom for their refusal to break the silence of the sacrament.