Priests bound to obey church law if crimes confessed
by LAURA FRANK
July 23, 2002
If a priest hears a confession revealing that a child has been sexually abused, Tennessee state law requires that he report the abuse.
But Roman Catholic law says something else. It bans him from alerting authorities - and from taking any other action.
In fact, one canon law expert says, church law would prevent the priest from even trying to remove an abuser from contact with youth.
"Even if they know harm may flow, they cannot compromise the seal of confession,'' said Charles M. Wilson, executive director of The St. Joseph Foundation in San Antonio, Texas, which offers canon law consulting to Catholics nationwide.
Tennessee state law requires anyone who has information that a child may have been sexually abused to tell police or state child protective services.
The law does not exempt clergy, so if a priest was told about child sex abuse during confession, he would be breaking Tennessee law if he did not report the abuse to authorities, District Attorney General Torry Johnson said.
R.J. Mathew says that in 1992, when he was 14, he told his priest that former Nashville priest Edward J. McKeown was sexually abusing him. The priest says he does not recall such a confession, but that if it had happened, he would have been bound to follow church law.
Mathew's parents say Nashville Bishop Edward Kmiec told them that a priest must choose church law over state law.
Diocese spokesman Rick Musacchio said yesterday that Kmiec was not available for comment. But Musacchio provided this statement:
"The seal of the confessional is sacred and absolute, and stems from the long tradition that everyone must be free as a matter of conscience to seek God's forgiveness through the sacrament. A priest would not be able to report any crime that he learns about during the sacrament because the seal is inviolable and it is a church crime to betray any penitent for any reason."
Mathew says that when he made his confession he knew priests were not allowed to reveal what they learned.
"I think subconsciously I was hoping he'd go talk to him (Mc- Keown) and tell him to stop,'' Mathew said.
Wilson said such a scenario also would violate canon law. If someone was to confess a crime to a priest, the priest could make forgiveness conditional upon the person turning himself in to police. But church law would prevent the priest from doing any more, Wilson said.
The penalty for violating the section of Catholic law known as Canon 1388 is immediate excommunication, Wilson said. Only the pope can forgive such a sin, he said, adding: "Priests have been martyred rather than tell what is told in confession.''