To better understand of what the “secret of confession” consists, the Italian Catholic agency Acistampa interviewed Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Major Penitentiary of the Holy Roman Church, on October 15, 2021.
Stressing that “numerous attacks are being launched against the seal of the secrecy of the sacrament of confession, with the apparent cause being the publication of numerous reports on the number of sexual abuses allegedly committed by the clergy,” the Italian agency answers in opposition that “it is certainly not by violating a sacrament that we can fight this scourge, which is, moreover, tragically widespread in all sectors of society and which is fueled by extreme sexualization” of society.
Cardinal Piacenza recalls that “everything that is said in confession is under an absolutely inviolable seal.” That is, he specifies, from the moment when this act of worship begins with the sign of the cross until the moment when it ends either with absolution or with the refusal of absolution. Indeed, explains the cardinal, “any information given in confession is 'sealed' because it is made to God alone, it is therefore not available to the priest confessor.”
This in no way prevents the confessor, adds Msgr. Piacenza, from urging the child, who reveals in confession to be the victim of abuse, to report the abuse to his parents, educators, or the police.
Thus, “the penitent does not address himself to the confessor as to a man, but to God. Therefore, to take possession of what belongs to God would be a sacrilege.” And he concludes, saying “the sacrament itself, instituted by Christ to be a haven of salvation for all sinners, is under this protection.”
Cardinal Piacenza also explained that the analogy between the secrecy of confession and the professional secrecy of doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, etc. must be ruled out “at all costs.”
Indeed, he clarified, there is no secret which cannot yield to the contrary requirements established by the law or by the judge, by the codes of ethics or by the person concerned who authorizes its disclosure - with the exception of the secrecy of confession.
Because, continues the prelate, “it is not an obligation imposed from the outside, but an intrinsic requirement of the sacrament, and as such, it [this secrecy intrinsically required by the sacrament] cannot be released even by the penitent himself.”
And to conclude that it is “essential to insist on the impossibility of comparing confessional secrecy with professional secrecy, in order to prevent secular legislation from applying to inviolable confessional secrecy the exceptions to professional secrecy for just reasons.”
In a July 29, 2019 Note from the Apostolic Penitentiary on the importance of the internal forum and the inviolability of the sacramental seal, Cardinal Piacenza already wrote:
“There seems to be developing a worrying 'negative prejudice' about the Catholic Church, whose existence is presented culturally, and reinterpreted socially, either in the light of the tensions that may appear even within the hierarchy or recent scandals of horrific abuse committed by members of the clergy.”
“This prejudice, forgetting the true nature of the Church, her authentic history, and the real and beneficial influence that she has had and still has in the lives of men, sometimes results in an unjustifiable 'claim' that the Church herself, in these areas, conforms her own legislation to that of the States in which she lives, as the only possible “guarantee of correctness and rectitude,”
The purpose of this Note was to define concepts that have now become foreign to public opinion and civil legal bodies:
“In the face of all this, the Apostolic Penitentiary considered it appropriate to intervene with this Note, to recall the importance, and to promote a better understanding of the concepts specific to ecclesial and social communication, which today seem to have become foreign to public opinion and sometimes even to civil legal bodies, namely: the sacramental seal, the duty of reserve specific to the extra-sacramental internal forum, professional secrecy, the criteria and limits specific to any other communication.”