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Amid sex abuse scandals, Vatican upholds confession secrecy

The Holy See’s Apostolic Penitentiaria, a tribunal which deals with absolution and confessional matters, reiterated the secrecy obligation in a six-page document made public Monday, July 1, 2019, by the Vatican.

VATICAN CITY – Amid pedophile clergy scandals, the Vatican has declared “unacceptable” any efforts by politicians or lawmakers to force priests to violate their sacred obligation to keep secret what faithful tell them in confession.

The Holy See’s Apostolic Penitentiary, a tribunal dealing with absolution and confessional matters, reiterated the secrecy obligation for clergy in a six-page document approved by the pope and made public Monday.

For years now, the Catholic church has been besieged by lawsuits and other civil actions and targeted by prosecutors, including in the United States, aimed at obtaining justice for children and other victims of sex abuse by clergy and systematic cover-up by many pastors and bishops.

“Every political or legislative initiative aimed at ‘forcing’ the inviolability of the sacramental seal would constitute an unacceptable offense against the freedom of the church, which doesn’t receive its very legitimization from any single country but from God,” the document said.

Such initiatives would also violate religious freedom, it asserted.

In a written comment on the document, Tribunal head Cardinal Mauro Piacenza cautioned against interpreting the statement as any slackening in Pope Francis’ recently reiterated resolve to combat clergy sex abuse and cover-ups by superiors.

“It’s opportune to make clear that the text of the statement cannot and doesn’t want to be in any way a justification or a form of tolerance of the abhorrent cases of abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy,” Piacenza wrote.

“No compromise is acceptable in promoting the protection of minors and of vulnerable persons and in preventing and combatting every form of abuse, in the spirit of that which has been constantly reiterated (by Francis),” the cardinal wrote.

But Piacenza stressed that confessional secrecy cannot be compared to “professional secrecy” enjoyed by the likes of lawyers and doctors. Thus, the cardinal said, confessional secrecy cannot be subject to the legal exceptions for occasionally lifting professional secrecy.

His statement appeared meant as a preventative parry to any prosecutor’s efforts to demand revelation of a penitent’s confession in court cases or investigations.

The tribunal document also acknowledged what it called a “certain worrisome ‘negative prejudice’ toward the Catholic church.”

It attributed such prejudice in part to “tensions that can occur inside the very hierarchy” of the church, an apparent reference to clashing factions among cardinals and bishops during Francis’ papacy, pitting more conservative camps against less conservative ones. And it cited the “recent scandals of abuse, horribly perpetrated by some members of the clergy.”

Cardinal Piacenza noted that Francis himself earlier this year called confessional secrecy indispensable, and quoted the pontiff as saying “no human power has jurisdiction” over that secrecy. Piacenza said the tribunal felt it “urgent to recall in the first place the absolute inviolability of the sacramental secrecy, which is based on divine right and admits no exception.”

In its document, the tribunal also warned against “the judgment of public opinion” and “reckless judgments” amid the eagerness by people, including faithful and even clergy, for scandalous news.