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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Roman Catholic Church Investigation Report


I.4: The seal of the confessional

Sacramental seal

17. The sacramental seal is described in the Church’s teachings as follows:

the church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the ‘sacramental seal’ because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains ‘sealed’ by the sacrament.[1]

18. Monsignor Read described the sacramental seal as “an ancient and fundamental matter of Catholic Church doctrine”,[2] the breach of which leads to ‘automatic’ excommunication. This means that the individual remains a priest but is “not able to either receive or confer the sacraments or take part in the public worship of the church”.[3] He said that the priest would need to go to confession and would need to “seek the lifting of the excommunication which is something which is reserved to the Holy See”.[4] Monsignor Read explained that there would be no breach of the seal if:

  • a priest answered “an entirely generic” question about whether anyone had ever confessed that they were the victim or perpetrator of child sexual abuse; and
  • if a perpetrator were to repeat his admissions outside of confession and the priest reported the matter to the statutory authorities.[5]

Disclosure of abuse during confession

Disclosure of abuse by victims and survivors

19. A number of victims and survivors (for example RC-A31, RC-A705 and Frank McGinnis) told us that during confession they had told the priest that they were being sexually abused.[6] Father Paul Smyth recalled one occasion approximately 27 years ago while working in Guatemala where “a young girl” confessed that she was the victim of familial child sexual abuse and that he “kind of encouraged her not to feel it was her fault, what was happening, and to try to encourage her to tell her parents”.[7] He said he did not tell her to speak to him about this outside confession “because the social situation in Guatemala where I was working at that time wouldn’t have had any organisational structure in place to deal with cases like that”.[8]

20. The CSAS guidance Disclosure of Abuse and the Sacrament of Reconciliation (published on its website) makes clear that a victim or survivor of abuse “is not guilty of any sin in respect of the abuse suffered”.[9] It states that the priest should ‘encourage’ the victim “to pass on the information to an appropriate person”.[10]

Disclosure of abuse by perpetrators

21. A study of interviews with “a small sample” of perpetrators from the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland reported that those perpetrators had disclosed their offences during confession. The Australian Royal Commission also heard some evidence of perpetrators confessing during confession.[11]

22. The Inquiry asked a number of clerical witnesses whether they had personally experienced a perpetrator confessing to acts of child sexual abuse during confession. Bishop Peter Doyle, Bishop Philip Egan, Monsignor Read, Father Smyth and Cardinal Nichols all said that this had not happened in their experience.[12]

23. Monsignor Read said that if a perpetrator confessed to him, he would:

make them realise the seriousness of what has happened, that they have an obligation in justice, especially to the victim, but also to society in general, to do what they can to remedy that, and that that should involve reporting the matter to the police”.[13]

He explained that a priest could not refuse absolution if a perpetrator refused to report a matter to the police. He would want to defer absolution and say to the perpetrator “come back when you have thought about it”.[14]

24. Cardinal Nichols told us that, during some training he undertook with the Lucy Faithfull Foundation (a UK charity dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse), he was told:

that an abuser of children does not believe they are doing something wrong … and, therefore was very unlikely to confess it as a sin”.[15]

This accords with the Inquiry’s rapid evidence assessment Child sexual abuse within the Catholic and Anglican Churches which found that “disclosure during confession is likely to be one of the less common ways in which the Church becomes aware of abuse”.[16]

25. In the event that a perpetrator confessed to acts of child sexual abuse, CSAS guidance states that the priest “should ask for action consistent with a firm purpose of amendment as a constituent part of an assigned penance”.[17] This demonstrates the impenetrability of the wording of some CSAS policies.

Mandatory reporting and the sacramental seal

26. Cardinal Nichols said that the sacramental seal “is an essential part of the exercise of priesthood, as a nexus between my sinful humanity and the mercy of God. And I would defend the seal of the confession, absolutely”.[18] He agreed with a number of witnesses (including Monsignor Read, Dr Colette Limbrick and Mrs Carmi) that there was tension between the paramountcy principle and the confidentiality of a disclosure made during confession. When asked how that tension is resolved, he said:

The history of the Catholic Church has a number of people who have been put to death in defence of the seal of the confession. It might come to that. But the seal of confession is of a sacred nature, and it is at the heart of the priest’s ministry, acting in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.[19]

27. He also said that, as a mandatory reporting law would in effect break the seal of the confessional, the Bishops’ Conference would reject any recommendation to this effect:

It would not be well received. It would be rejected”.[20]

28. Mandatory reporting has arisen in other investigations. The Inquiry has also held a number of seminars on this issue.[21] As a result, it is a subject that will form part of the Inquiry’s final report.

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