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: Repenting and renewing our role as shepherds

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Jesus tells the disciples in St. John’s Gospel, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” contrasting his goodness with the thieves who come only to steal and destroy.  This past week my fellow U.S. bishops and I sought to act as good shepherds by approving three measures to increase our vigilance and prevention of the evil of sexual abuse by bishops, shepherds who have betrayed the flock entrusted to them.

This last weekend we celebrated Father’s Day, which should remind biological and spiritual fathers of their great responsibility of protecting and raising up new life. This mission is further emphasized by the Rite for the Ordination of a Bishop, which says, “In the Church entrusted to you, be a faithful steward, moderator and guardian of the mysteries of Christ. Since you are chosen by the Father to rule over his family, be mindful always of the Good Shepherd, who knows his sheep and is known by them, and who did not hesitate to lay down his life for them.” This is the model for all bishops.

But the scandals of Theodore McCarrick, Bishop Bransfield and others have made it clear that our vigilance has not been adequate. To quote from the just-issued “Affirming Our Episcopal Commitment” statement, “We, the bishops of the United States, have heard the anger expressed by so many within and outside of the Church over these failures.  The anger is justified; it has humbled us, prompting us into self-examination, repentance, and a desire to do better.” This sentiment was clear in my interactions with my fellow bishops in Baltimore this past week.

As evidence of our commitment, we overwhelmingly passed a set of directives for the bishops’ conference to implement Pope Francis’ Vos estis lux mundi document on handling abuse by priests and bishops. These directives include the creation by May 31, 2020 of a third-party phone and online system that receives reports of potential violations by bishops, the establishment of a protocol in which the Holy See designates and authorizes metropolitan archbishops to investigate cases of alleged abuse by bishops, and the expectation that the investigating bishop involve lay experts in assisting with these inquiries. For any investigations that falls under my jurisdiction, I will ensure that lay experts are involved, as I’ve done throughout my time as a bishop. As the new directives indicate, I will also appoint a lay person to receive complaints from the third-party reporting system, publicize how to make reports, ascertain the credibility of reports and gather any additional information necessary for an investigation to commence.

I also want to highlight that the bishops overwhelmingly approved protocols for imposing limitations on former bishops who were removed from office for grave reasons and that we adopted a code of conduct for bishops, which explicitly states that the Dallas Charter will now include bishops.

All these measures are in addition to those we have been enforcing since 2002 in relation to preventing sexual abuse of minors by priests. The Archdiocese of Denver has a strong track record of actively working to protect children, including annual audits, background checks of employees and clergy, and a code of conduct that previous bishops and I have all signed, and a robust training program aimed at fostering safe environments for children. The effectiveness of these measures over the past 20 years has made us a model for other institutions seeking to combat abuse.

Pope Francis rightly noted in a January 2019 personal letter to the U.S. bishops that the consequences of our failures cannot be fixed by being administrators of new programs or committees.  They can only be resolved by humility, listening, self-examination and conversion.

My brother bishops and I hope that by obeying the Word of God, seeking the will of the Father and embracing what the Church expects of us, we will imitate Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Read more

Pope Francis’ motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi can be read at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/papa-francesco-motu-proprio-20190507_vos-estis-lux-mundi.html

The USCCB Directives implementing Vos estis can be read at: http://www.usccb.org/about/leadership/usccb-general-assembly/2019-june-meeting/upload/usccb-modified-amended-directives-2019-06.pdf

Reach out

Christi Sullivan serves as the Protection Specialist for the Office of Child and Youth Protection and can be reached at 303-715-3241 or Christi.Sullivan@archden.org.

Victims of abuse can reach out to Dr. Jim Langley, the Victim Assistance Coordinator, at 720-239-2832 or Victim.Assistance@ArchDen.org.