PARIS – The absolute secrecy of confession is fundamental to the Roman Catholic faith. What is said in confession is between a penitent and God, the priest a mediator. Any priest who breaks that seal can face excommunication under church laws that the Vatican places above all others.
But what happens when what is confessed is a violation of state laws?
It is an issue that has upset attempts to address the sexual abuse cases that have rocked the Church in various countries, but which has emerged as especially accused in France, where the state long ago stripped the Catholic Church of its prominence. . .
A devastating church-ordered report issued in October An independent commission on sexual abuse within the French Catholic Church found that the sacrament of confession itself had, on rare occasions, been used to cover up abuse cases.
Some victims who wished to report past abuse or expose active abusive priests were told to speak about it during confession, effectively suppressing their revelations and turning the sacrament into a “weapon of silence,” said Laëtitia Atlani-Duault, member from the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, who wrote the report.
“The fact that this information is heard during confession would exempt the church from submitting to the laws of the Republic,” he said.
The report recommended that priests who learned of abuse during confession should present evidence to state authorities so that abusers “no longer feel protected by church leaders,” said Ms. Atlani-Duault, an anthropologist who teaches at the IRD-University of Paris and University of Colombia.
Even so, the morning after the report was published, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, Archbishop of Reims and President of the Episcopal Conference of France, reaffirmed the Vatican’s position on the absolute secrecy of confession, declaring ecclesiastical law “superior to the laws of the Republic.”
The comment drew a strong reprimand from the French government. Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, swiftly summoned the archbishop, an act laden with symbolism that angered some Catholic officials.
After a meeting in the minister’s office, the archbishop spoke in a statement for “reconciling the nature of the confession and the need to protect children” and apologized for its “clumsy wording.”
But he did not deviate from the church’s position on the secrecy of confession. Darmanin reiterated the government’s position that priests should report child abuse, though he stopped short of stating that they were legally bound to do so.
Look for disagreements on the secrecy of confession have erupted in a number of countries that went through an acknowledgment of abuse in their churches, but the debates remain largely unresolved. Under pressure, the Vatican in recent years has raised or relieved Some from his confidentiality policies, but it has stood firm in confession.
On Australia, a real commission recommended in 2017 that priests who hear about sexual abuse in the confessional should report it, and several state have passed laws to that end, but ecclesiastical authorities have rejected for comply. At USA, just a handful of states they have denied religious exemptions from mandatory reporting laws.
But the issue has gained special resonance in France, which went through a long and controversial separation between Church and State.
“We can say that the church is not ready to review this dogma,” Jean Castex, France’s prime minister, told reporters last month during a visit with Pope Francis at the Vatican. according for French media. “But we must find ways to reconcile it with criminal law and victims’ rights.”
Reverend Thomas Poussier, a Catholic priest who has written about the confession, said he understood why the sacrament was suspected. “It may seem like a great washing machine for the souls of predators,” he said.
During the confession, the prices should urge the victims to report the evidence to external authorities so that the act of confession does not become “the end of the road,” he added.
The estimated number of victims of abuse – 200,000 to 300,000 in 70 years – was a projection based on a general population survey, a public call for victim testimony, file analysis, and other sources. The commission interviewed more than 150 victims and received more than 2,200 written accounts.
Ms Atlani-Duault, a member of the commission, said the group had not carried out a quantitative analysis showing how often penitents turned to confession when talking about sexual abuse.
Cases of abuse reported during the confession seemed rare, said Olivier Savignac, leader of De la parole aux actes !, an umbrella association of victims groups established after the report to pressure the church to change. On Friday, the bishops of France recognized that the church had an “institutional responsibility” for “systemic” abuse, an admission that many victims expected to hear.
But Savignac said the Archbishop of Moulins-Beaufort’s comments pointed to a fundamental problem: that the French Catholic Church, like its counterparts in other countries, could not change independently.
“There can be no reforms on the part of the Catholic Church in France, especially on something at the level of secrecy of confession, without the authorization of Rome,” Savignac said. “The bishops hide behind Rome because they know very well that conservatism in Rome acts as a firewall.”
When asked whether the descriptions in the report constituted abuse of the sacrament, the Vatican press office said the information available on the cases was “too little to draw conclusions.”
The answer is unsatisfactory even for some faithful. André Robert, a parishioner who was found one recent morning in the Notre-Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse chapel in Paris’s Seventh Arrondissement, said that in a secular state, the laws should apply to everyone.
“I wouldn’t understand it if you gave it a pass to the Catholic religion,” Robert said.
The Rev. Cédric Burgun, vice president of the faculty of canon law at the Catholic University of Paris, said the controversy was partly due to a misunderstanding of the sacrament.
In recent decades, he said, “we have transformed confession into a kind of psycho-emotional and spiritual assistance,” rather than simply confessing and repenting of sins. Confessionals that physically separate priest from parishioner are rarely used today, he added, and confession often occurs in a face-to-face office setting.
If a victim mentions abuse during confession, “the priest should be able to say to the person: ‘What you are telling me is not strictly part of the confession, so we better talk about it again in another context to see what is needed. . let it be done, ‘”Father Burgun said.
But some critics say the reasoning ignores how difficult and tortuous the process can be for those trying to speak.
Véronique Garnier, 60, who was sexually abused by a priest in her parish when she was 13, said the church needed to “put the victims at the center” but that she “still sees things from the point of view of the clergy “.
She drew a parallel with her experience. After she was abused, she said she turned to her high school chaplain, then a sister, and finally another priest. They all told him to seek help elsewhere. It took him a year between each time he mustered the courage to speak again, he added.
“It’s like someone sees someone else drowning and says, ‘Wait, I see you’re drowning, but I can’t help you, so let’s wait for someone else to come,’” Ms. Garnier said. who wrote a book about her experience and now works in child protection for the Diocese of Orleans.
Bruno Py, a law professor at the University of Lorraine in eastern France, said French priests were bound by the same confidentiality rules that govern doctor-patient or lawyer-client relationships. Professionals who break those rules face up to a year in prison and thousands of euros in fines.
France has carved out in recent years exceptions to those sanctions, especially in cases of minor abuse, he noted. French law does too mandatory for anyone to report abuse against minors or vulnerable people; those who fail to do so face up to three years in prison and a hefty fine.
But except for rare cases that involve imminent or life-threatening dangerSaid Py, the law exempts professionals bound by secrecy from such obligations. the legal precedent It is to let them choose: they do not face penalties if they report abuse, but neither do they face any penalties if they keep information private.
“Talking is allowed; it is allowed to remain silent, ”he said. “The law leaves individuals with their conscience.”
Léontine Gallois contributed reporting from Paris, and Jason horowitz from Rome.