Is the Secrecy of Confession Threatened in France?

October 18, 2021
Statue of St. John Nepomuk on St. Charles Bridge in Prague, from where he was thrown into the Vltava River

Gérald Darmanin, the Minister of the Interior, who is also Minister of Worship,  summoned Msgr. Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the French Episcopal Conference, on Tuesday, October 12, 2021, to ask him to report on a statement given in front of the microphone of France Info which placed the secrecy of confession above the laws of the Republic.

During this radio program, the Archbishop of Reims was questioned in connection with the publication of the report of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (Ciase) or the Sauvé report named after its manager, which revealed disturbing figures in this area.

It must be admitted that Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort was “trapped” by the journalist who insisted on making him say that “the secrecy of confession is above the laws of the Republic,” which is certainly true, but which, under the present conditions, must be said with tact to avoid risky interpretations.

This assertion provoked the reaction of the ministry of religion, who summoned the president of the episcopal conference for explanation, as well as that of the keeper of the seals, Mr. Eric Dupond-Moretti, who rebelled against the formula.

To understand this reaction, one must remember the recent remarks of the Minister of the Interior. Questioned on France Inter, on Monday February 1, 2021, about the “charter of the principles of Islam in France,” the Minister of the Interior declared that believers should consider the law of the Republic as “superior” to the law of God.

Asked about the law “consolidating the principles of the Republic,” the examination of which was beginning in the National Assembly, he spoke about the Muslim federations refusal to sign the “charter of principles for Islam in France”: “We can no longer argue with people who refuse to write on a piece of paper that the law of the Republic is superior to the law of God.”

It is therefore not surprising that he reacted strongly to the comments by the Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort. He couldn't do less.

After this meeting with the president of the episcopal conference, the minister, speaking before the National Assembly, affirmed that priests having knowledge of “crimes” against “children under 15 years,” had to “bring” these facts of child crime “to justice” and not bring it into conflict with the secrecy of confession.

The newspaper Le Monde, as well as Le Figaro summarized the French law concerning the secrecy of confession. Article 226-13 of the penal code specifies that the revelation of “secret information by a person who is the custodian of it either by state or by profession, or by reason of a function or a temporary mission,” is punished by one year's imprisonment and a fine of 15,000 euros.

This article concerns people bound by professional secrecy - such as lawyers or notaries - or by medical secrecy. It also applies to clergymen, the secrecy of confession being assimilated to professional secrecy. The secrecy of confession has been recognized by the Court of Cassation since 1891 and confirmed in 1977.

The obligation of denunciation of article 434-3 of the penal code “for anyone having knowledge of deprivation, ill-treatment or assault or sexual abuse” towards vulnerable people, includes exceptions, especially for people ... permanently bound to secrecy. A circular published in 2004 by the Ministry of Justice recalls these elements.

A person bound by professional secrecy, can however report the fact of abuse of a minor under the age of 15, without being penalized, but as indicated in a 2004 circular published by the Ministry of Justice: “The reporting of such facts to the authorities is a simple option, opened by article 226-14 of the Penal Code.”

Thus, as Le Figaro sums it up: “French law orders priests to respect the secrecy [of confession], except when they have knowledge of specific offenses or crimes, in particular those relating to minors or vulnerable people. But if the law leaves them the possibility of reporting these facts, it does not oblige them to do so.”

There is therefore, for the time being, no danger for the secrecy of confession in France.

Catholics should be reminded that this secret is inviolable, and that the priest who reveals it directly incurs latae sententiae - that is to say automatic – excommunication and that whoever reveals it indirectly will be punished depending on the seriousness of the offense.

There have been heroic priests in the history of the Church who have died for not wanting to violate this secret: as did St. John of Nepomuk. And others who, for the same reason, ended up in jail or in prison for many years.