Washington bishop: Priests would rather go to jail than break seal of confession

(Image: Josh Applegate/Unsplash.com)

Washington D.C., Apr 20, 2023 / 15:30 pm (CNA).

As Washington state lawmakers debate legislation that would end legal protections for the seal of confession, Spokane Bishop Thomas A. Daly has assured his diocese that priests would opt for a jail sentence before they would break the seal.

“I want to assure you that your shepherds, bishop and priests, are committed to keeping the seal of confession — even to the point of going to jail,” Daly wrote in a letter to Catholics in the Diocese of Spokane, which covers eastern Washington.

“The sacrament of penance is sacred and will remain that way in the Diocese of Spokane,” he said.

The bishop’s April 19 letter referred to a state Senate bill that would make priests mandatory reporters of abuse. The original Senate-passed bill included an exemption for information that priests obtain during a confession, which was included to protect the seal of confession. However, the House-passed version included an amendment that eliminated legal protections for the seal of confession and would threaten priests with jail time if they refuse to disclose information heard during a confession.

On April 17, the Senate refused to agree to the House’s amendment and sent the original bill back to the House. Now, the House must choose whether it wants to insist on its amendment, defer to the original Senate bill, or offer another alternative. If the House decides to insist on its amendment or offer another alternative, the legislation would then be sent back to the Senate again. If it defers to the original Senate language, the bill will head to the governor’s desk.

Any legislation that would try to force priests to violate the seal of confession would pit civil law against canon law. Canon 983 of the Code of Canon Law states that the seal of confession is “inviolable.”

“It is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion,” the canon declares.

The penalties for violating the seal of confession are strict. According to Canon 1386, if a priest “directly violates the sacramental seal,” he would incur an automatic excommunication. Any priest who violates the seal indirectly “is to be punished according to the gravity of the [offense].”

In his letter, Daly encouraged lawmakers to “make good law which is able to be followed and enforced” and remained optimistic that religious freedom would prevail.

“The state of Washington is not the first governing body to attempt to criminalize our commitment to keep the seal of confession sacred,” the bishop wrote. “History is replete with examples of kings, queens, dictators, potentates, and legislators who have attempted to have the seal of confession violated through law, coercion, or fiat. All have failed.”

A spokesperson for the Washington State Catholic Conference told CNA that the organization is working with lawmakers to craft a bill that protects children and the seal of confession.

“We are thankful for the efforts of senators on both sides of the aisle who did not concur with the amendment that eliminated the clergy-penitent privilege,” the spokesperson said. “ We are currently working with legislators to find a version of S.B. 5280 that may work for all and protect children and protect the clergy-penitent privilege. The Washington State Catholic Conference bishops continue to support legislation that makes clergy mandatory reporters of information obtained outside the sacrament of reconciliation.”

During the 2023 legislative sessions, lawmakers in Delaware and Vermont also introduced bills that could jeopardize the seal of confession. Some religious freedom advocates have argued that such laws would violate the First Amendment’s religious freedom protections and that we should expect lawsuits if any of these bills become law.

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  1. The plot thickens…as another and former Washington State bishop predicted (from Yakima and then Portland, Oregon), Francis George (1937-2015), later as the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago–his successors would be imprisoned, and their successors would be martyred.

  2. As one of many commenting Washington State citizens, yours truly sent this letter to our legislators:

    “I respectfully and vigorously oppose SB 5280 because it removes the reporting exemption for Catholic priests for information heard (almost certainly anonymously!) within the Sacrament of Penance. Three points:
    FIRST, the bill is ineffective since the sacrament is usually and optionally administered secretly behind an opaque screen (!) and the priest cannot even know who the penitent is;
    SECOND, the effect of the bill will be that penitents will simply avoid the sacrament altogether if they suspect a state informant system is in place.
    THIRD, under canon law the priest is subject to automatic excommunication (check it out) for violating not only the penitent but, equally seriously, this part of a sacramental life that goes back 2,000 years (to One who is greater than any legislative body).
    An alternative would be for all state legislators to address the very broad moral meltdown inflicted on students–and which contributes to a wide spectrum of consequences within society at large, including student suicide and classroom shootings–by a supposedly morally-neutral educational system, but which in fact is a moral vacuum which invites and fosters the historic societal meltdown now terrifying all of us. Legislative posturing on prime-time news in front of spastic legislation is part of the problem, not the solution…
    So, I do support legislative concern against sexual abuse–but find this bill totally ineffective or worse on three persuasive counts (above), and even abusively overreaching with regard to Church-State relations. In centuries past, priests have suffered imprisonment and even death rather than violate a penitent or the sacramental life of the Church (I first learned about THIS in 1955 under a Protestant elementary school teacher–in a public school! She would be fired today without a hearing, and would the Washington State Legislature give a damn?).”

  3. The same grotesque leftist law makers are advancing abuse of a nature no less abominable by forwarding a wolf in the disguise of “gender affirming care” which devours the whole vulnerable child. The mirrors of these law makers should work to condemn them in this evil; but, being malformed in conscience they advance an agenda which is no less than the very Handmaid of Antichrist. I fret about the fate of souls in our Novus Ordo parishes whose car bumpers are adorned with political stickers meant to advance this evil Handmaid. I fear it won’t go well for them. I don’t know how, but, they have been misled, deceived, never educated or worse, encouraged, even while being “participants” of holy mass.

  4. 1) Pass the law

    2) A Priest defies it

    3) The cops come and get him

    4) They lead him out in handcuffs


    “A spokesman for the Washington State Catholic Conference told CNA that the organization is working with lawmakers to craft a bill that protects children and the seal of confession.”

    It is, sadly, typical of these people that they use children in this way. I’m glad that Bishop Daly said what he said, but IMO he should have made his statement stronger – MUCH stronger.

    • I think a far more likely scenario is this: they pass the law, then wonder how to enforce it, since nearly all confessions are anonymous and the priest likely has no idea who the penitent was, if he even remembers the confession at all–and there is no practical way the police would even learn of such a confession in the first place. Realizing that the measure is unenforceable without prior state intervention, they obtain a court order to bug the confessionals. But after a year or two of listening to recorded confessions, they have failed to catch a single child abuser in the act of confessing. Instead, they are forced to listen to hundreds of people confessing sins of anger, impatience, non-criminal sexual sins (such as consuming pornography) and the like. It’s very frustrating. Obviously, they must change tactics. The police now send dozens of undercover officers into confessionals, who then record themselves confessing the most vial sins of child abuse–all of it staged and fake, unbeknownst to the priests, who of course grant absolution and then do not demand the penitent’s identity so that he can be reported to the police. After spending a year or so staging such confessions to every priest in the diocese from the bishop on down, without a single priest ever reporting a single penitent, the audio recordings go to a grand jury, which then indicts the bishop and all his priests. An army of cops, dressed in paramilitary gear, armed with fully automatic rifles, charges the churches and rectories early one morning, hauling in priests by the truckload, who are then ordered held without bail by judges who also order all the churches padlocked. The church is effectively put out of business in that diocese. Period. There’s your scenario. There’s what’s likely to happen if such a law ever passes.

      • Mr. Northon;

        IMO were they even to attempt to get court orders to implement your scenario, the excrement would hit the air circulator to such an extent that they would shy away from taking it any further.

        At least I HOPE and PRAY that would happen.

        • The process would be done entirely in secret–until the actual arrests. As for the rest–in the wake of what happened to Cardinal Pell and former President Trump, I don’t think it’s a safe assumption anymore that the establishment would never stoop to such a thing.

  5. Disregard of religious integrity comes with a deepening of atheistic secularism, the spiritual leprosy that’s spreading worldwide. Former inviolable principles of justice, including those enshrined in the Constitution thought ad infinitum now fall like withered leaves. Deception, pretense, are the new. Religiosity, rosary beads, signs of the cross shadow intense hatred of truth, of innocent life.
    Confession, Catholicism’s inviolable sacrament of reconciliation had been under assault in the past at times despotic royalty in the age of Christendom, under Antichrist regimes Nazism and Communism. It survived. Priests were martyred. That sacrosanct transaction between man and God insures the freedom to confess sin and be absolved free of retribution should what’s confessed be accessed [a priest may and should advise some penitents to satisfy civil justice, to seek professional assistance when and where warranted, although never under compulsion].
    Our Nation is influenced by an apparent majority who have abandoned God and the values of Christianity that shaped our founding fathers’ thoughts, enactments, principles for rule. Revision of the Constitution has morphed into cancel culture dismissal. Political arms of government, the Justice Dept, is now an enforcement agency for an ideology. Fearfully, it seems the establishment [deep state] will stop at nothing to prevent a return to the true meaning of liberty and justice.
    Increasingly evident the Church is the remaining institution that provides a rational just option, a barrier. That is, if its members who still hold to the faith are prepared to pay the price. And with that achieve salvation for themselves and others.

  6. Its been clear for some years that the inmates are running the asylum in Washington State. I would not live there if THEY paid ME. Portland is a particularly badly run cesspool. I feel for the normal folk who have not yet chosen to move from the state. AS for this bill, I dont think ANY genuine catholic priest would obey it. And a question arises, how would the STATE know they were not? Only if they insert themselves undercover into a confessional with a tape recorder and tape themselves falsely confessing just such a sin, then waiting to see if the priest makes a report. This bill is a gross violation of personal privacy and our constitutional freedom of religion. I hope that if it should pass, the Bishop of Spokane will take it to court right up to the supreme court level. This bill specifically targets Catholic priests and therefore is trying to single out one religion with this bill, which is also unconstitutional, as it amounts to suppression of a Catholics practice of faith and unequal application of the law. They appear to be under the impression that the church has a monopoly on pedophiles. It does not. Many children have been abused by teachers, doctors, coaches, family members, and a whole panoply of the rest of society. This is a disgusting distortion of the law.

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