Keep government out of the confessional

Archbishop Aquila

One of the most powerful moments in the sacramental lives of Catholics occurs when we walk into a confessional, lay our sins at the feet of Jesus in the person of the priest and receive God’s forgiveness. But state legislators in California are seeking to break into this sacred encounter and require priests to divulge certain sins — a development that should concern people of faith everywhere.

Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus appeared to the disciples and said, “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (John 20:21-23). This conferral of the power to forgive sins shows us how much Jesus loves us and wants to accompany us with his mercy.

In the confessional — or for Eastern Catholics, in front of the icon of Jesus — we experience the limitless mercy and love of Christ, who so greatly desires to be present to us in our brokenness that he gave priests the authority to forgive sins.

When we go to the sacrament of reconciliation, Jesus offers his unconditional forgiveness to those who are repentant. The sins we confess are spoken to Christ in the person of the priest and are swallowed up by his mercy. Therefore, priests are required to maintain absolute secrecy about anything revealed during confession.

The Code of Canon Law clearly states: “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” (Canon 983.1). If a priest directly breaks this trust, he is automatically excommunicated and cannot be restored to the Church, except by the Pope himself.

The California legislature is currently considering Senate Bill 360, which would require priests to disclose sins of sexual abuse that they hear in the confessional. As my brother bishop, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles has stated, this is “solving a crisis that doesn’t exist.”

Archbishop Gomez notes a 2017 study by Professor Keith Thompson that shows “child sexual abuse is not a sin that people confess to priests in the confessional. Those who counsel such predators tell us that sadly, many of them are secretive and manipulative and cannot comprehend the grave evil of their actions.”

At the same time, the idea that the government can insert itself into the intimate relationship between a person and God is an example of blatant disregard for the Church’s freedom of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Priests in the Archdiocese of Denver have been mandatory reporters of sexual abuse for years and I fully support this policy, along with the rigorous safe environment policies we have implemented. But allowing the state to intrude into the confessional cannot be accepted. I wholeheartedly agree with Bishop Michael Barber’s statement that, “Even if this bill passes, no priest may obey it. The protection of your right to confess to God and have your sins forgiven in total privacy must be protected. …I will go to jail before I will obey this attack on our religious freedom.”

Penitents should not have to fear confession, rather it should be a place where they encounter what Jesus described to St. Faustina as “the Tribunal of Mercy. There the greatest miracles take place [and] are incessantly repeated. To avail oneself of this miracle, it is not necessary to go on a great pilgrimage, or to carry out some external ceremony; it suffices to come with faith to the feet of My representative and to reveal to Him one’s misery, and the miracle of Divine Mercy will be fully demonstrated” (Diary of St. Faustina, #1448).

May God guide our legislators and our country in these times of difficulty and may he help us restore all people to their true dignity, which is inherently bestowed by the Creator and not by the government.

COMING UP: A last chance for Australian justice

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My late parents loved Cardinal George Pell, whom they knew for decades. So I found it a happy coincidence that, on November 12 (which would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary), a two-judge panel of Australia’s High Court referred to the entire Court the cardinal’s request for “special leave” to appeal his incomprehensible conviction on charges of “historic sexual abuse,” and the even-more-incomprehensible denial of his appeal against that manifestly unsafe verdict.

Thus in 2020 the highest judicial authority in Australia will review the Pell case, which gives the High Court the opportunity to reverse a gross injustice and acquit the cardinal of a hideous crime: a “crime” that Pell insists never happened; a “crime” for which not a shred of corroborating evidence has yet been produced; a “crime” that simply could not have happened in the circumstances and under the conditions it was alleged to have been committed.

Since Cardinal Pell’s original appeal was denied in August by two of three judges on an appellate panel in the State of Victoria, the majority decision to uphold Pell’s conviction has come under withering criticism for relying primarily on the credibility of the alleged victim. As the judge who voted to sustain the cardinal’s appeal pointed out (in a dissent that one distinguished Australian attorney described as the most important legal document in that country’s history), witness credibility – a thoroughly subjective judgment-call – is a very shaky standard by which to find someone guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It has also been noted by fair-minded people that the dissenting judge, Mark Weinberg, is the most respected criminal jurist in Australia, while his two colleagues on the appellate panel had little or no criminal law experience. Weinberg’s lengthy and devastating critique of his two colleagues’ shallow arguments seemed intended to signal the High Court that something was seriously awry here and that the reputation of Australian justice – as well as the fate of an innocent man – was at stake.

Other recent straws in the wind Down Under have given hope to the cardinal’s supporters that justice may yet be done in his case.

Andrew Bolt, a television journalist with a nationwide audience, walked himself through the alleged series of events at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, within the timeframe in which they were supposed to have occurred, and concluded that the prosecution’s case, and the decisions by both the convicting jury and the majority of the appeal panel, simply made no sense. What was supposed to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did.

Australians willing to ignore the vicious anti-Pell polemics that have fouled their country’s public life for years also heard from two former workers at the cathedral, who stated categorically that what was alleged to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did, because they were a few yards away from Cardinal Pell at the precise time he was alleged to have abused two choirboys.

Then there was Anthony Charles Smith, a veteran criminal attorney (and not a Catholic), who wrote in Annals Australasia that the Pell verdict and the denial of his appeal “curdles my stomach.” How, he asked, could a guilty verdict be rendered on “evidence….so weak and bordering on the preposterous?” The only plausible answer, he suggested, was that Pell’s “guilt” was assumed by many, thanks to “an avalanche of adverse publicity” ginned up by “a mob baying for Pell’s blood” and influencing “a media [that] should always be skeptical.”

Even more strikingly, the left-leaning Saturday Paper, no friend of Cardinal Pell or the Catholic Church, published an article in which Russell Marks – a one-time research assistant on an anti-Pell book – argued that the two judges on the appellate panel who voted to uphold the cardinal’s conviction “effectively allowed no possible defense for Pell: there was nothing his lawyers could have said or done, because the judges appeared to argue it was enough to simply believe the complainant on the basis of his performance under cross examination.”

The Australian criminal justice system has stumbled or failed at every stage of this case. The High Court of Australia can break that losing streak, free an innocent man, and restore the reputation of Australian justice in the world. Whatever the subsequent fallout from the rabid Pell-haters, friends of justice must hope that that is what happens when the High Court hears the cardinal’s case – Australia’s Dreyfus Case – next year.

Photo: CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images