Rules Are for Schmucks: The Catholic Church’s Secrecy Privilege

The Catholic lobby is complaining (again), this time about a Louisiana Supreme Court decision challenging the special privilege it demands to refuse to cooperate with legitimate court procedures for discovery of the truth.

A young woman in Louisiana alleges that in 2008, when she was 14, she confided in a priest on several occasions in the confessional both that a prominent 64-year old parishioner had been fondling, stalking and harassing her, and she didn’t know what to do. The priest’s response, according to the young woman, was simply, “This is your problem. Sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.”

When young woman’s parents found out about it, they thought that this response, coupled with other action or inaction on the part of the priest and the parish, was inadequate to say the least. So they brought a lawsuit.

The church’s first response was to attempt to muzzle even the young woman herself from testifying about what she told the priest. Quite properly, the court said she could offer any testimony she wished. But when she attempted to call the priest as a witness, the church really got its back up, and took its refusal to cooperate all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Most states have some sort of law allowing priests to refuse to divulge the sins revealed to them during confession. But unlike some states (including neighboring Texas), Louisiana has no statute that explicitly overrides the confessional privilege for sex abuse cases. Here, though, there is a serious question as to whether the young woman gave the information to the priest “during confession” or not. In her view, she wasn’t confessing her own sin, because she hadn’t done anything wrong—she was simply complaining about a lecher and begging for help in dealing with him. The fact that she chose a private place to talk doesn’t turn what she said into a “confession.”

Moreover, the person who has the right to privacy ostensibly protected by the confessional privilege is the person doing the confessing, not the priest. In a case like this, where the person doing the confessing has no objection at all to letting the priest testify, what is the interest of the state in letting him off the hook? Canon law section 983.1, which the church bases its defense on, says only 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.” But if she wasn’t acting as a “penitent,” and she’s not being “betrayed,” then where’s the problem?

The problem is really one of power. The church has always believed that it is bigger than any civil government created by ordinary humans. Some governments knuckle under and accept this, and some do not. In the famous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, for example, when Catholics tried to blow up the Parliament, Father Henry Garnet refused to reveal to the court what he had learned in the confessional about the plot. After he was executed, his head was mounted on a pole on London Bridge. Less dramatically, in R v. Hay (1860), Rev. John Kelly was jailed for contempt after refusing to tell an English court which penitent had given him a stolen watch for safekeeping.

More recently in Australia, a government commission has been exploring modifying the confessional privilege when it involves sex abuse cases, to the fury of the church—well, most of the church, anyway. The retired Catholic bishop of Sydney has broken ranks and said he thinks the law should ignore the confessional privilege in cases where doing so would be for the “greater good.” The Anglican Church in Australia last month approved a proposal to abandon its own confessional seal, at least in cases of alleged criminal offenses that would carry more than five years’ imprisonment.

Despite what the Anglicans are doing, the exceptions being considered in Australia and currently on the books in several American states are only for sex abuse crimes. Sex abuse happens to be the topic most relevant today; more banal crimes, like murder, would still get full benefit of the privilege. Is there a logic here that I’m missing?