Priest stripped of faculty to hear confessions after he advocated violating that sacrament in sex abuse cases


Pleuntje via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Boston, Mass., Mar 23, 2023 / 16:00 pm (CNA).

Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee has stripped one of his priests of the faculty to hear confessions following the clergyman’s public support for civil laws mandating that priests break the seal of confession for sins of sexual abuse.

“I have informed Father James Connell that effective immediately he is to cease all such erroneous communications that distort the teachings of the Church about the confessional seal,” Listeicki wrote in a March 22 statement.

“I have also immediately removed the canonical faculties of Father Connell to validly celebrate the sacrament of confession and to offer absolution, here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and thereby also in the Catholic Church around the world.”

Connell, a retired priest in the archdiocese and former vice chancellor, made comments March 13 in advocating for a Delaware state bill that mandates priests break the seal of confession for penitents who confess sins of child sexual abuse.

Connell wrote that “no institution in our society, not even a recognized religion, has a significant advantage over governments’ compelling interest and responsibility to protect its children from harm by abuse or neglect.”

“Thus, no valid freedom of religion argument rooted in the absence of truth can provide a moral justification for sheltering perpetrators of abuse or neglect of children from their deserved punishment, while also endangering potential victims,” he continued.

This isn’t the first time Connell, a canon lawyer, has spoken publicly on the issue. In 2018, he appealed to Pope Francis in an online article to “release from the seal of confession” all information regarding child or vulnerable adult sexual abuse so authorities can be notified.

The seal of confession “is not a matter of divine law,” he said in that piece.

In the Code of Canon Law, Canon 983 says that “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.”

In 2019, he filed a lawsuit in a U.S. district court against Wisconsin and nine other states arguing that exemptions for the clergy from being mandatory reporters in cases when sexual abuse became known to them under the sacramental seal are unconstitutional.

That lawsuit was dismissed by the judge one day after it was filed.

Connell is a vocal advocate for victims of clerical sexual abuse. Following the August 2022 death of Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who covered up priestly sexual abuse and paid hush money to a former adult seminarian with whom he had a sexual relationship, Connell publicly called for clergy in the archdiocese to boycott the funeral.

Connell himself was accused in 2009 of covering up a sexual abuse case when he worked in the chancery, a claim that both he and the archdiocese denied.

In his recent column, Connell wrote that “all people in Delaware should support the proposed HB 74 that would repeal the Delaware clergy-penitent privilege statute.”

Listecki said that Connell’s comments on the confessional seal are “gravely contrary” to Church teaching and that the Church “firmly declares that the sacramental seal of confession is always, and in every circumstance without exception, completely inviolable.”

“The false assertions of Father James Connell have caused understandable and widespread unrest among the people of God, causing them to question if the privacy of the confessional can now be violated, by him or any other Catholic priest,” he said.

CNA reached out to Connell for comment but received no response by time of publication.

Sandra Peterson, the archdiocese’s communications director, referred CNA to Listecki’s statement and added that she is unaware of any intervention against Connell for his prior comments against the seal of confession in the two years she has been working for the archdiocese.

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  1. Connell makes a powerful argument. Civil lawful reasoning doesn’t remove the principle of absolute privacy in confessing sins to a priest. The transaction is between man and God and falls under divine jurisdiction.
    If the seal were permitted to be removed, under any circumstance [once removed the seal is no longer inviolable in any instance] the penitent would in effect be making his confession to the world. That impedes the freedom for the penitent to confess and avoid scandal or reprisal. State would have the legal right to investigate and obtain access to all confessions.

      • No. What I’m saying is that Connell, a former canon lawyer makes a strong civil law argument for breaking the seal, which I follow up with reasons why it would be detrimental to justice and the sacrament of penance – which is why Archbishop Listecki justly censured him.

  2. Connell is advocating for something truly evil, under the guise of helping those who were abused. Plus, he’s causing confusion and division among Delaware’s Catholics. He should just be completely defrocked. His compelling argument is a danger to the faith.

  3. Justice, the protection of children, and the veil of confession can all coexist. Outside the confessional in the courtroom, Pope St. Peter was feared by the people.

    Acts of the Apostles 5 Ananias and Sapphira.
    A man named Ananias, however, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. He retained for himself, with his wife’s knowledge, some of the purchase price, took the remainder, and put it at the feet of the apostles. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart so that you lied to the holy Spirit and retained part of the price of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain yours? And when it was sold, was it not still under your control? Why did you contrive this deed? You have lied not to human beings, but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last, and great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped him up, then carried him out and buried him…

    The Blessed Mother told the Fatima seer children that Archangel Michael will bring with him a transparency of actions on earth. In Acts of the Apostles, we see Ananias and his wife trying to lie to St. Peter in the courtroom. By the end of their testimony, St. Peter, all his flock, and we the readers, have a clear and transparent view of Ananias and Sapphira’s true actions.

    Matthew 18 outlines Jesus Will to His Catholic Leaders on the use of Catholic Anathema to protect the innocent, when personal, civil and Church litigation does not work.

    Matthew 18:17 Fraternal Correction
    “If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ “If he ignores them, refer it to the church . If he ignores even the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. I assure you, whatever you declare bound on earth shall be held bound in heaven, and whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be held loosed in heaven.”

    Matthew 18:5
    “Whoever welcomes one such child for my sake welcomes me. On the other hand, it would be better for anyone who leads astray one of these little ones who believes in me, to be drown by a millstone around his neck, in the depths of the sea. What terrible things will come on the world through scandal! It is inevitable that scandal should occur. Nonetheless, woe to that man through whom scandal comes! If your hand or foot is your undoing, cut it off and throw it from you! Better to enter life maimed or crippled than be thrown with two hands or feet into endless fire. If your eye is your downfall, gouge it out and cast it from you! Better to enter life with one eye than be thrown with both into fiery Gehenna.

    What I hear, Jesus in Matthew 18 and the Holy Spirit in Acts 5, telling us, is that Pope Francis has to pull out Jesus’ sword of Catholic anathema to protect our children in our present child molester scandal. Pope Francis has to auto-anathematize all child molesters, and those clergy who aid and abet them, until they confess their crimes against children to civil prosecutors, judges and juries.

  4. Bravo to Archbishop Listecki! Finally, a high churchman with a spine. If a priest cannot commit to such a basic church principal as the sacredness of the seal of confession, he should be removed from the priesthood. Nobody approves of the abuse of children. However this is not an excuse to destroy the principle of the seal of confession. To do so would be to destroy one of the basic founding pillars of the church. Would that all of our high churchmen could act so decisively.

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