Should a priest/preacher be bound to confidentiality?

While the days of sitting in a booth with a physical separation between priest and parishioner are mostly over, there are still frequent instances of  a church member confiding in their preacher/priest about something that troubles their mind. If the confession involves breaking the law is the priest/preacher morally obligated to contact the authorities? Where is the line drawn? Assault & battery, rape, arson, incest, etc. Is it a judgement call? Would there be a fear of retribution if they alert authorities? How does the clergy justify remaining quiet? Therapists are legally bound to report information about illegal acts.

Tags: confession, confidentiality

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Dale, don't interpret my explaining the facts of the religious and professional ethics as supporting them in every case.

One of my specialties in grad school was the ethics of counseling, so I have a pretty good understanding of what the ethics of counseling are and the reasons why they are that way.

People who need counseling or to unburden themselves psychologically do need some expectation of privacy and that the person they unburden with is there to help them not judge them. Clinicians hear disturbing things all the time and have to bury their feelings, listen, and respect the privacy of the client in the interest of helping them. More typically, it would be someone who is cheating on their marriage partner, dealing with a gambling habit that they are feeding through theft, and things like that. Not murder or parent-child incest.

If a Catholic priest hears in the confessional that a father is abusing his daughter, if the confessor is the father, about all he can do is assure the father that what's going on is wrong and sinful and must stop, and that he should seek clinical help. Of course, clinicians have an explicit legal duty to report such abuse, so that's another story. If the priest is hearing the confession of the daughter, the priest would likely ask her to put an end to the situation by reporting it. As long as he's a priest, though, he's bound by duty not to report it himself.

So, this is the way things work or—in the context of the religion or profession—are supposed to work, like it or not.

"One of my specialties in grad school was the ethics of counseling, so I have a pretty good understanding of what the ethics of counseling are and the reasons why they are that way."


That's cute, but it's just anecdotal evidence and doesn't reflect the general clerical feeling about the secrecy and privacy of the Christian confessional. Sounds like a Bible banger church, not one of the majors (Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodism, Baptists, etc.)>

@ Dale

You do acknowledge that in the context of attorney/client privilege any information shared could not be expected to be divulged or released to the public (ie law enforcement officials). Otherwise the defense of a client would be jeopardy from the very beginning.


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