Confession, the Courts and Going to Hell

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If a priest reveals what he’s heard in confession, will he go to hell?

I’ve read that a priest who violates the seal of confession suffers automatic excommunication which only the Holy See can remove. So, I would guess that a priest who reveals what he hears in confession is, at the least, in danger of hell.

That’s a serious question, for the simple reason that, in this anti-Catholic climate, we’re going to see more and more attempts to coerce priests to break the seal of confession. That would be a great triumph for Satan, since it would destroy the confidence of Catholics and break what has always been a powerful bond between them and their Church.

Catholics know that whatever they do, they can be forgiven by God. All Christians know this. But Catholics have the benefit of being able to actually confess their sins out loud and hear the words of absolution, applied directly to them. It does not matter what the sin is, they can do this in the confessional.

They also receive incredibly healing graces in this sacrament.

There is something about the cleansing power of the Sacrament of Confession that can make people who would not otherwise be able to approach communion feel worthy to do so. Confession heals, in and of itself. The sinner does not have to wonder if they’ve had the right attitude or if they’ve really been saved. All they have to do is confess and mean it. They can then draw a line under those bad things and walk out of that confessional, safe and secure in God’s grace.

All this is based on two things: The fact that Christ uses the priest for a conduit of His grace in this sacrament, and the fact that Catholics can trust that whatever they say in that confessional ends there.

I don’t know how priests deal with this burden, but I can say from my years of listening to non-sacramental confessions from thousands of constituents that God probably gives them the grace of forgetfulness. I know that I never remember the things my constituents have told me unless I need to in order to do something for them. I don’t mean I forget, exactly. I just mean that those things are not, ever, in my thoughts.

When I see the person the next time, I don’t think about or even remember what they’ve told me. It doesn’t stay in my thoughts at all. But if I need to remember for a legitimate reason, I do. I believe that is a grace that God bestows on office holders, an anointing, if you will, that allows them to keep the secrets their constituents share with them. From what I’ve seen, elected officials, no matter what rubes they may be in other ways, are very, very good at not talking about their constituents’ private matters.

I am guessing that priests experience something similar. If God gave me this grace, as an elected official, I can’t imagine why He wouldn’t give something like it to His priests who hear confessions.

That’s a good thing, because priests are more and more going to be the objects of assaults of various types in the courts. The underlying reason is that the devil is pretty much running the show in a large segment of Western society, and the devil hates priests.

If Satan can break a priest, if he can use a priest to his ends, the damage he can do to those of us in the pews is enormous. The single best way to wound the Body of Christ is to turn His ministers into weapons against the Church and the people of God.

If Satan can break the seal of the confessional, then he will, in one swoop, destroy the sacrament that bestows God’s cleansing healing on scarred and hurting souls. Of course, he can’t destroy the forgiveness and mercy of Christ. Jesus is perfectly capable of reaching into people directly. I have experienced this myself. But he can destroy the safe, reliable source of healing and forgiveness that is the sacrament of confession.

I think that’s the real reason behind the attacks on the confessional through the courts that crop up from time to time. I would guess that every priest knows that he can be drug through protracted court battles aimed at trying to get him to divulge something someone said to him in confession.

It happened a few years ago in Oregon when a prosecutor secretly taped a jailhouse confession and tried to use it in court. It’s happening in Louisiana right now as part of a civil lawsuit.

Father Jeff Bayhi is stuck between the Louisiana Supreme Court, a girl and her family who are suing for money, and going to hell.

The Supreme Court of Louisiana recently ruled that Father Bayhi must testify in court about the particulars of a confession that he may have heard in 2008. A girl, who was 14 at the time, says she confessed to him that she was being abused by a relative who is now dead. The girl’s parents are now suing Father Bayhi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge for failure to report the abuse.

This particular case has all the lightning rods in place: Priest. Sexual abuse of a minor. Failure to report.

The trouble, of course, is that the failure to report — assuming that the allegations that the girl made this confession are true — is that the lightning rods aren’t aligned the way they usually are. This isn’t about a bishop who failed to report an abusing priest. It is about a priest who — I repeat: if the confession took place as the girl claims — did not break the seal of confession.

The priest sex abuse scandal has given these particular lightning rods such drawing power that just putting the words out there in a row elicits all sorts of rage, disgust and dismissal. Priest. Sexual abuse of a minor. Failure to report. That’s a litany (if you will excuse the word) of betrayal that has been seared into the minds of everyone who hears it.

However, the Confessional is inviolate. Father Bayhi can not testify.

I can tell you that every time God has given me a chance to suffer for Him, I didn’t want it. I am not the stuff martyrs are made of. I’ve been kicked around quite a bit for my faith, and I’ve wailed and moaned and been angry about every single bit of it.

So, my heart goes out to Father Bayhi. He’s been given the awful gift of suffering for Christ. I can only imagine how terrifying and miserable all this is for him.

My grandmother used to talk about being “stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.” Father Bayhi is literally stuck between the devil and Jesus. The two things he’s got going for him are that he knows absolutely what he must do, and he’s not alone. Every faithful Catholic, everywhere, will stand behind him.

Will Father Bayhi have to go to jail? I doubt it. At some point, saner courts will probably prevail. But that’s not a sure thing. Not in today’s world.

When the New York Times can keep running ads openly attacking the Church in a manner that I can only describe as religious bigotry, and when large portions of the media are willing to publish vitriolic and categorically bigoted attacks on prominent Catholics for being Catholics, then anything is possible.

Father Bayhi and all our priests need our prayers. We need to stick together and stand up for one another.

  • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

    The final paragraphs of Blessed John Henry Newman’s great sermon “The Second Spring”:

    …as that suffering of the Martyrs is not yet recompensed, so, perchance, it is not yet exhausted. Something, for what we know, remains to be undergone, to complete the necessary sacrifice. May God forbid it, for this poor nation’s sake! But still could we be surprised, my Fathers and my Brothers, if the winter even now should not yet be quite over? Have we any right to take it strange, if, in this English land, the spring-time of the Church should turn out to be an English spring, {180} an uncertain, anxious time of hope and fear, of joy and suffering,—of bright promise and budding hopes, yet withal, of keen blasts, and cold showers, and sudden storms?

    One thing alone I know,—that according to our need, so will be our strength. One thing I am sure of, that the more the enemy rages against us, so much the more will the Saints in Heaven plead for us; the more fearful are our trials from the world, the more present to us will be our Mother Mary, and our good Patrons and Angel Guardians; the more malicious are the devices of men against us, the louder cry of supplication will ascend from the bosom of the whole Church to God for us. We shall not be left orphans; we shall have within us the strength of the Paraclete, promised to the Church and to every member of it. My Fathers, my Brothers in the priesthood, I speak from my heart when I declare my conviction, that there is no one among you here present but, if God so willed, would readily become a martyr for His sake. I do not say you would wish it; I do not say that the natural will would not pray that that chalice might pass away; I do not speak of what you can do by any strength of yours;—but in the strength of God, in the grace of the Spirit, in the armour of justice, by the consolations and peace of the Church, by the blessing of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and in the name of Christ, you would do what nature cannot do. By the intercession of the Saints on high, by the penances and good works and the prayers of the people of God on earth, you would be forcibly borne up as upon the waves of the mighty deep, and carried on out of {181} yourselves by the fulness of grace, whether nature wished it or no. I do not mean violently, or with unseemly struggle, but calmly, gracefully, sweetly, joyously, you would mount up and ride forth to the battle, as on the rush of Angels’ wings, as your fathers did before you, and gained the prize. You, who day by day offer up the Immaculate Lamb of God, you who hold in your hands the Incarnate Word under the visible tokens which He has ordained, you who again and again drain the chalice of the Great Victim; who is to make you fear? what is to startle you? what to seduce you? who is to stop you, whether you are to suffer or to do, whether to lay the foundations of the Church in tears, or to put the crown upon the work in jubilation?

    My Fathers, my Brothers, one word more. It may seem as if I were going out of my way in thus addressing you; but I have some sort of plea to urge in extenuation. When the English College at Rome was set up by the solicitude of a great Pontiff in the beginning of England’s sorrows, and missionaries were trained there for confessorship and martyrdom here, who was it that saluted the fair Saxon youths as they passed by him in the streets of the great city, with the salutation, “Salvete flores martyrum”? And when the time came for each in turn to leave that peaceful home, and to go forth to the conflict, to whom did they betake themselves before leaving Rome, to receive a blessing which might nerve them for their work? They went for a Saint’s blessing; they went to a calm old man, who had never seen blood, except in penance; who had longed indeed to die for Christ, what time the great St. Francis opened {182} the way to the far East, but who had been fixed as if a sentinel in the holy city, and walked up and down for fifty years on one beat, while his brethren were in the battle. Oh! the fire of that heart, too great for its frail tenement, which tormented him to be kept at home when the whole Church was at war! and therefore came those bright-haired strangers to him, ere they set out for the scene of their passion, that the full zeal and love pent up in that burning breast might find a vent, and flow over, from him who was kept at home, upon those who were to face the foe. Therefore one by one, each in his turn, those youthful soldiers came to the old man; and one by one they persevered and gained the crown and the palm,—all but one, who had not gone, and would not go, for the salutary blessing.

    My Fathers, my Brothers, that old man was my own St. Philip. Bear with me for his sake. If I have spoken too seriously, his sweet smile shall temper it. As he was with you three centuries ago in Rome, when our Temple fell, so now surely when it is rising, it is a pleasant token that he should have even set out on his travels to you; and that, as if remembering how he interceded for you at home, and recognizing the relations he then formed with you, he should now be wishing to have a name among you, and to be loved by you, and perchance to do you a service, here in your own land.

  • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

    “arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour…as the will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”

  • pagansister

    I understand the reason for the confessional and it’s privacy etc., but I have a problem with a priest not being able to assist in a murder investigation if the murderer had confessed to the priest in the confessional. I too have a problem with this situation of the mentioned priest not being able to testify abut the child who said she was being abused by a relative. Should he have talked to the parents? She was 14. She apparently was scared to tell her parents. I’m sorry the parents are suing the priest as it is most certainly for money, but I feel they should have been told. Of course they waited until the abuser was dead. Teachers are required to tell someone in authority if they suspect a student is being abused or if the child has told them about it. If others are suffering from what one person is doing to another, as in abuse cases, or a murder case, how is OK not to assist law enforcement in catching the possible murderer or the abuser? A murderer could murder again, and come and confess yet again. Others could be in danger in either type of case. How can either the murderer or abuser be “forgiven” ?

    • oregon nurse

      “I understand the reason for the confessional and it’s privacy etc.,”

      Everything you went on to write following this statement was an undoing of it.

      • pagansister

        May have undone what I said, but how is it that murderers can be protected (and forgiven) and rapists too? It makes no sense to me. I’m sure all confessions aren’t from murderers or rapists (or their victims) so keeping the secret is easier as is the amount of Hail Mary’s etc. The intention of a confession is noble, but if the person is a danger to others—how is that “rule” honestly kept if others are in danger from the person who confides in the priest? If another person is killed or raped or molested after the confession, doesn’t that show a flaw in those rules? I suspect I’ve repeated myself.

        • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

          No murderer is protected. No criminal is protected. Your language is tendentious and you do not seem to understand that the point of confession is repentance and penance, including criminal penalties.

          • pagansister

            OK, if criminal penalties are involved, why can’t the priest call authorities? The person who has committed the crime is supposed to turn themselves in as part of their penance? How likely is that in some cases?

            • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

              If he will not do the penance, he should never have got into the confessional. In everything you say it is clear that you cannot force yourself to take the idea and role of God seriously. You talk as though informing the authorities were the ultimately important matter, and that the favour or otherwise of God should be used for that purpose. Turn your visual around. Try to understand that if the person who confesses is a believer (and if not, why confess?), then the forgiveness of God is infinitely more important than any thought of jail on Earth. And the priest should think in the same manner.

              • pagansister

                I agree—if he/she won’t do penance they why bother to go to confession? If they aren’t a believer, why go? Because I think it could give the person a temporary feeling of everything is fine. Later they return to their wrong doing and the cycle continues. For instance, how many “good religious men” belonged to a faith and continued with their activities?

        • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

          Forgiveness in the confession is not necessarily unconditional. It is part of the rite that penance is assigned; it is part of the modern version of the rite that the penance is *directly* related to fixing the problem. There is no reason whatsoever that the penance can’t include a secular confession to the proper authorities.

          You’ve just given me an idea I want to bring up at my pastoral council meeting. And a possible new “Catholic Kitsch” product that might do some good in this world.

          • hamiltonr

            Ted, I may be wrong, but I don’t see how a priest could this part of the penance. It would be forcing the penitent to violate the seal of the confessional. It’s not a sin for me to talk about my own confession if I choose, but forcing me to do so as a condition of receiving absolution seems like it would be contradictory to the whole purpose and use of the sacrament.

            • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

              Actually, I’ve had something similar happen to me, and it helped me straighten my life out- which is the real purpose of the sacrament, to increase our grace.

            • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

              God is directly involved in the Confessional, and to use God in order to get out of confessing to men and getting worldly penalties would be not a sacrament but a sacrilege. That the criminal should confess to earthly authorities is an absolutely indispensable part of his setting things right with God.

        • FW Ken

          So you believe that not every sin can be forgiven?

          • pagansister

            IMO, not every sin can be forgiven. I can’t “forgive” those folks who do horrible things to other people—rapists, child molesters,murderers being at the top.

            • FW Ken

              Here the deal. The first step in working with a sex offensder is that they admit their offense. No admission, no progress. Apply that to the confessional. Someone making confession is by definition seeking to do better. Without the seal, is unlikely the confession will get made, and you have just made the community less safe.

              • pagansister

                OK. However the person may still continue to commit their crime even after confessing.

            • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

              That means that you don’t know how to forgive; not that God does not.

              • pagansister

                Oh, I can forgive—and have many times. If a member of the family was killed? Forget forgiveness. There is a person in the family who survived molestation as a child. I haven’t and won’t “forgive” the persons who inflicted that pain. Yes, I know who they are and have unfortunately met them at one point. I’ll leave any forgiveness to whatever might happen to them when they die.

    • pesq87

      Let me take a stab at this and forgive the lack of caffeine. First, imho, he should not have talked to the parents. What if it were actually the parents who were abusing the girl and, in confession, unable to admit such a horror, she pointed to a neighbor or uncle. It happens.

      As to the privilege question, it’s a matter of this: do we want to live in a country where the government (the courts, the law, society, whatever word you like in this case) can force a priest – against his will – to repeat the secrets that were told to him in confession? The answer is no. Do we want to live in a country where the government can force a wife – against her will – to repeat the secrets that were told to her by her husband in the intimacy of the marital home? No. Do we want to live in a country where the government can force a doctor- against her will – to repeat the intimate personal health related details that were told to her by her patient in the examining room? No. There are certain relationships that are too important, where intimacy and privacy and confidence are so important to the entire workings of our civilized society that the government’s need to prosecute murderers and rapists really does need to take a back seat.

      The alternative is unthinkable.

      • pagansister

        I really can’t repeat what I have written a couple of times already. I still ask, however, if a murderer confesses to a priest, how is it OK for him NOT to inform authorities as that person may kill again? Or a rapist committing the crime again? Who the rapist/abuser is in the case of a child? Who is informed could be tricky—as you mentioned if it is a parent doing the mistreatment etc. Repeating health issues by a doctor to someone not authorized to have access, isn’t the same thing as far as I can see. Wife or husband testifying to personal secrets? No. Those 2 things do not (hopefully) involve possible death or abuse (though sometimes they do).

  • AnneG

    That whole trial is such a ridiculous farce. My heart goes out to Fr Bayhi, too. I’m sure he will be protected eventually.
    On the other hand, couldn’t he use the Hillary Clinton defense, “I don’t recall.” “I was really busy.” Worked for her.

    • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

      Is he a registered Democrat?

  • oregon nurse

    I don’t understand why the need for the priest to testify in court to what the young woman herself can testify to. She can unfortunately say anything she wants and there is nothing he can do to defend himself. Why can’t the court just move on with her testimony alone? The priest clearly didn’t report what was said in the confessional so I’m at a loss to understand the need for him to testify at all.

  • oregon nurse

    Then I would implore you remember the words of Martin Niemoller and go to your Lutheran leadership councils (not sure of the terminology) and ask them to support the Catholic Church by speaking out loudly and clearly in defense of religious freedom on this point.

  • FW Ken

    This is actually more complex than it appears. First, a penitent can break the seal, which seems to have happened in this case. Moreover, if the girl is telling the truth about what she was told, then it begins to look like the diocese is using the seal to hide from the priest’s incompetence. I would personally come down on the side of the seal, but barely.

    I read the Supreme Court decision, and it does appear they are trying to add priests to the list of people required to report child abuse. The merits of the current case notwithstanding, that’s a very bad thing.

    • hamiltonr

      Priests are required to report child abuse now, at least in Oklahoma. But they are not required to break the seal of the confessional. I don’t know why anyone would be quick to believe this girl, given that she suing for money. She may be telling the truth, but may not be. No way to know.

      • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

        Despite the money angle, I usually come down believing the abused.

        We need to break this rape culture, the bastard flower child and fruit of the sexual revolution. And the only way we can do that is through transparency.

        • hamiltonr

          I’m quite sympathetic with people who have been abused, as you know. However, I know of instances where people have made false charges, in particular to make money through lawsuits. Based on what we know, we can not determine much of anything about this situation.

    • Mary E.

      Ken, when you say that a “penitent can break the seal,” can you clarify that for me? My understanding is that Church law does not allow penitents to break the seal of confession, and the statement of the diocese specifically states this. If the court wants a priest to confirm or deny what a penitent said, on the grounds that the penitent has “waived” a requirement to keep her confession secret, then he would still be breaking the seal of the confessional. He can’t give testimony about the confession, and the fact that the girl has given her permission doesn’t alter that–that’s my understanding.

  • peggy-o

    I have heard priests speak of this and even refer to it as a “grace of forgetfulness”. All our sacraments are under attack these days and our priests need support more than ever. Not makings of a martyr here either. I’ll stand up and then get cranky with God with “why do I always have to stand up” or “where were you” and after awhile and some prayer I’ll recall that I offered to help and then apologize and things will get better. And sometimes laugh duh… A cool and holy priest answered my “why me” selfish question once by saying “because God knows you will”. It’s always worth the cost but there is loss. My prayers to this Father.

  • pagansister

    If a murderer or rapist confessed to you, would you feel obligated to inform on him/her or would you just keep that secret? How would you feel if that person killed again or continued to molest a child or rape?

  • hamiltonr

    I’m not talking to you specifically Sus, just taking this place to think out loud. It always amazes me how quick people are to decide to toss away their legal freedoms for some short-term objective. Attorneys also have a kind of seal, called the attorney-client privilege. It is necessary if people are to receive competent legal counsel. Confession can not work if ham-handed judges can barge into the confessional anytime they want.

    I’m not sure why people are so short-sighted — again, not you specifically, I’m responding to several comments all at once. All someone has to do is wave a conundrum, even, as in this case, a manufactured conundrum that they know nothing about — and they start tossing away their freedoms.

    Strange.

    • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

      That is because they never see themselves as those losing their rights. They always see themselves as those taking the rights of others away. The moment it reaches them, nobody will squeal louder – but by then nobody will be listening.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    The correct answer this case highlights, is if a minor confesses to a priest that she’s being sexually abused, part of her penance needs to be to tell the police. Same with a priest confessing abuse he committed to another priest.

    Sometimes penance needs to become public.

    • margaret1910

      You have got to be kidding! If a minor “confesses” to being sexually abused? No penance, because he or she has not sinned! No one must or can, confess another’s sin. And, NO, a priest cannot require a victim to go to the authorites.

    • FW Ken

      If I had heard that confession, I would ask the girl if she wants help with the situation. If so, to discuss it outside the confessional and include her parents. That conference would end with a call to the police, or in my state, to child welfare. If the girl refuses help, then absolve her for what she may have done wrong and remind her of her options.

  • pagansister

    Think I inquired about this above before I read this. However I repeat from above, how many criminals will actually turn themselves in?

    • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

      That is not the priest’s responsibility The priest is the agent of God, and God can forgive, but He cannot force His forgiveness on those who refuse it. If the penitent really wants to be forgiven by God, he will do his duty. If not, not.

      • pagansister

        OK

  • Mary E.

    There is one element of this case that isn’t made fully clear in the Louisiana Supreme Court opinion, but it is clearer after reading the opinion of the appeals court, which is available to the public (the records of the original trial in district court have been sealed). The Supreme Court remanded the case for further proceedings, including a detemination of whether a confession took place; this is alluded to in a concurring opinion which I found through the link at the top of the first page. One of the arguments made by the counsel for the plaintiff (the girl and her family) is that because the girl was not relating her own sins, but someone else’s sins, what she told the priest did not constitute a confession, and therefore, it was not “privileged communication.” That is the substance behind the call for proceedings to determine whether a confession occurred. In other words, a civil court would be making a determination concerning the necessary conditions for a sacrament of the Church, and that is part of why the priest would need to testify. Naturally, the diocese opposes that–strenuously opposes that, and so do I and I imagine, many other Catholics.

    Also, because the proceedings from the district court trial are sealed–a different kind of seal than the one we’ve been discussing–none of the parties involved can discuss it in detail, and reporters can’t get access to it, so we will probably hear just enough to keep us befuddled.

    • Mrshopey

      They would not be making that determination, regarding confession, without the Diocese and priest being able to call experts, etc, in their defense. It’s not just that they will read her testimony and say yes or no. Right?

  • FW Ken

    Is not what the girl said he did. She days he told her to sweep it under the rug.

    • pagansister

      She claims he told her to sweep it under the rug??? I really hope she is lying—

    • AnneG

      I hadn’t heard that. I’m still suspicious because of the money grab.

  • pagansister

    True, the person is supposed to be unknown. However I still think a priest might mention something to authorities if a person confessed to a crime, particularly a murder. Also, I suspect after a while of listening to the “regulars” who show up for confession a priest can recognize the voice and mannerisms of speech and actually knows who they are outside the confessional.

  • pagansister

    The guilty may be protected, but what about the innocent?

    • pesq87

      The government can still use all of its OTHER resources to go after the guilty.

  • pagansister

    Understand.

  • pagansister

    Relied to you above when you asked me the same thing.

  • pagansister

    You make a good point, Ken.

  • pagansister

    Obviously I misunderstood that you were addressing a clinical process only.

    • FW Ken

      Not “only”. The connection should be obvious.

      • pagansister

        It is, :-)


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