Confession secrecy and abuse in France

The estimate of more than 200,000 victims of child abuse by clergy in France between 1950 and 2020 has led members of the French government to question the sacramental secrecy of confession. A secrecy that the bishops defend as "stronger than the laws of the Republic".

Rafael Miner-October 20, 2021-Reading time: 6 minutes
Priest confession

The report of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (Ciase), composed of about twenty experts and chaired by Jean Marc Sauvé, has ruled a few days ago that in France 216,000 minors were victims of sexual abuse by priests, religious men and women over a period of 70 years (1950-2020).

The study has been promoted by the Catholic Church in France, and Sauvé has described "sexual violence" as "a fragmentation bomb in our society". Immediately, Pope Francis stated from Rome his "sadness and pain for the victims", added that "unfortunately, the numbers are considerable", without going into details, and asked that "dramas like this not be repeated".

Even if there had been only one case, we must share the pain, sadness and even disgust for this drama of abuse. However, it is worth remembering that the figure is "a statistical estimate", the result of an investigation by the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm), based on a survey conducted by Ifop (a benchmark institute for surveys and market research). And that only 1.25 % of the victims have expressed themselves to the Ciase. Now, the Church in France has been working on the prevention of sexual abuse since 1990, and with greater intensity since 2010.

State-Church clash?

The work of the Sauvé Commission and the sexual abuse of minors in countries such as Australia, Belgium, Holland, Chile, the United States, Ireland or the United Kingdom, also in Spain, committed or covered up by members of the clergy, have produced two movements: 1) on the part of the Church, "zero tolerance", with norms and guidelines to prosecute crimes and collaborate with state authorities, issued by Pope Francis and the Catholic Church; and 2) on the part of some administrative authorities, recommendations, and even pressure for members of the clergy to become mandatory denouncers of these abuses, violating the sacramental secrecy of the confession, under penalty of sanction.

This is what Professor Rafael Palomino has analyzed in Ius Canonicumwho in 2019 was already reporting regulations in Australia and other countries that eliminate the legal protection of the secrecy of confession, and which presaged a clash, even head-on, between state laws and canonical norms of the Church regarding the confidentiality of confession.

The same thing has just happened in France, where the Archbishop of Reims and president of the Episcopal Conference, Monsignor Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, told the radio station France Info that "we are bound by the secret of confession and, in this sense, it is stronger than the laws of the Republic". It was not long before the French President, Emmanuel Macron, asked Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort for explanations, and the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin ("nothing is above the laws of the Republic"), summoned him this week to clarify his words.

To get an idea of Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort's profile, some of his first words as president of the French Bishops' Conference, in 2019, were the following: "We will never go back to the village society of 1965, where people went to Mass out of duty. Today it is the pursuit of pleasure that governs social relations, and this is the world we must evangelize."

The sacrament of confession

In the background of this controversy, not only beats a certain pulse of a State of secular fabric with the Church, which was already reflected in the limitations of capacity in the temples during the pandemic, but perhaps a lack of knowledge of the sacrament of Penance in the Catholic faith.

This sacrament was instituted by Jesus Christ when on Easter evening he showed himself to the apostles and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you retain, they are retained" (Jn 20:22-23).

Jesus illustrated God's forgiveness, for example, with the parable of the prodigal son, where God waits for us with outstretched arms, even though we do not deserve it, as reflected in the well-known canvases of Rembrandt or Murillo. These are the actual words of absolution pronounced by the priest: "God, merciful Father, who reconciled the world to himself by the death and resurrection of his Son and poured out the Holy Spirit for the remission of sins, grant you, through the ministry of the Church, pardon and peace. And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit". It is God who forgives, who never tires of forgiving, it is we who tire of asking for forgiveness, said Pope Francis in his first Angelus (2013).

This most personal encounter with God, confession, takes place in absolute secrecy, the so-called sacramental secrecy. It is "a particular type of secrecy that obliges the confessor never to reveal, for any reason whatsoever and without exception, to the penitent the sins that he has manifested to him in the sacrament of confession".

Sacramental secrecy is "a particular type of secrecy that obliges the confessor never to reveal, for any reason and without exception, to the penitent the sins that he has manifested to him in the sacrament of confession".

"What is heard in God's own sphere must always remain in God's own sphere. There can never be any reason, not even the gravest, that permits the manifestation in the human sphere of the sins that the penitent has confessed to God in the sacramental sphere. This is why it is an inviolable secret. And it is not an ecclesiastical human law, but a divine law, in such a way that it cannot be dispensed," say Professors Otaduy, Viana and Sedano, citing the doctrine on the sacrament of Penance in the General Dictionary of Canon Law.

Cardinal Piacenza: "Only for God".

Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Major Penitentiary of the Church, has recently expressed these same ideas: "The penitent does not speak to the confessor, but to God. To take possession of what belongs to God would be sacrilege. Access to the same sacrament, instituted by Christ to be a safe harbor of salvation for all sinners, is protected".

"Everything that is said in confession, from the moment this act of worship begins, with the sign of the cross, until the moment it ends with absolution or with the denial of absolution, is under absolutely inviolable secrecy," he said in ACI Stampa. Even in the specific case in which "during confession, a minor reveals, for example, having suffered abuse, the dialogue must always remain, by its nature, under secrecy," the cardinal stressed.

However, he clarified, "this does not prevent the confessor from strongly recommending that the minor himself denounce the abuse to his parents, educators and the police". According to the cardinal, "the approach to confession, on the part of the faithful, could collapse if confidence in confidentiality is lost, with very serious damage to souls and to the whole work of evangelization".

Arguments of a controversy

Faced with these considerations, alerting of a case of pederasty is an "imperative obligation" even for priests, argued the French Minister of Justice, Éric Dupond-Moretti. And if he does not do so, he added on the channel LCIcan be condemned for it. "It's called not preventing a crime or offense," he stressed.

However, in an interview granted to the French magazine L'Incorrectquoted by Die TagespostThe bishop of Bayonne, Marc Aillet, has come out against the responses of several ministers, and has appealed to the religious sphere, which is fundamentally separate from the State, which has no authority over the Church.

The priest does not have the upper hand in this relationship of conscience of the person who turns to God in his request for forgiveness. Therefore, he cannot be touched, says Bishop Aillet. The priest is not the master in this relationship; he is the servant, the instrument of this very special relationship of man with God.

The priest does not have the upper hand in this relationship of conscience of the person who turns to God in his request for forgiveness.

Bishop Aillet recalled that the French Republic has always respected the secrecy of confession, which "affects freedom of conscience". This is the same argument put forward by Professor Rafael Palomino. In his opinion, "it is through the fundamental right of religious freedom that one can provide a foundation and also a weighty argument for an eventual evaluation, whether in jurisprudence or legislative policy, in the face of state restrictions that are based on the crime of omission of the duty to denounce abuses".

Bishop Aillet stressed, on the other hand, according to Die TagespostIn an increasingly secular society, most people no longer understand what a religious fact is: "The report on abuse creates a stir in which people no longer understand the principle of the secrecy of confession, which they associate with the law of silence or that of the 'family secret', and believe that the Church is still trying to hide things, when it is the Church that has commissioned this report".

Two things remain to be added: "the widespread and historically demonstrated fidelity of the Catholic clergy to the confidentiality of confession," notes Rafael Palomino, and the Pope's audience with the French Prime Minister, Jean Castex, with his wife, precisely this October 18.

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