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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Their rules should be no different than those of therapists or counselors.

If it was discovered that a clergyman did withhold information would they be held accountable?

If that is the rule for counselors, yes.

I think that's your hope, not a fact.

I think it would be political if not professional suicide in a strongly religious area for a prosecutor to prosecute a priest or minister for not violating the seal of the confessional.

I don't think any counselor is bound by the law to break confidentiality without the possibility of extreme consequences (rape, incest, murder). Things like "I'm going to drive to Indianapolis at 85 mph" or "I'm going to kick my husband in the shins" or "I'm going to count cards at Caesars" would not require reporting.

A similar topic was discussed in regard to the Colorado theater shooter on TV. The legal expert explained that the delineation has to do with past and future as regards counselors. If Joe confesses that he killed someone, that is covered by confidentiality. If Joe admits he intends to kill his wife, the counselor probably has a legal obligation to do something to prevent it, likely meaning reporting it to the authorities. There are gray areas. What if Joe admits an almost irresistible lust for his teenage stepdaughter? What if he says he feels like killing his boss? especially if he admits that he has bought a gun?

Now, I'm not an attorney but I don't believe clergy enjoy the same protection as professional psychologists, psychiatrists, and attorneys. At the same time, I believe this "privilege" is mostly respected by the authorities, if only because most clergy would rather go to jail than break the confidence of a confessor, which makes pursuing them with jail time for contempt to force them to reveal their knowledge a waste of time and energy as well as jail resources.

"If Joe confesses that he killed someone, that is covered by confidentiality."

Maybe it's just me but that seems unconscionable. legally, morally, or otherwise. 

 

According to Roman Catholic Canon Law, "The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason."

That explains what is unconscionable to a Catholic priest. The confession is between the confessor and God. That sounds dysfunctional to an atheist, I know. I'm just explaining it.

I don’t believe that anyone with knowledge of illegal acts that have either been committed or anticipated should be morally, ethically, or legally bound to keep it secret.   However, there are special instances where an individual’s own conscience might lead him/her to maintain confidentiality if it doesn’t endanger anyone’s safety or property to do so.  The point here is that priests and other religious officials should NOT receive a special dispensation to withhold knowledge of criminal acts based upon a privilege conferred upon them by a fictitious deity or a Papal decree.

If some Iman had been informed by one of the hijackers that he was going to fly a plane into the Twin Towers, should he have warned U.S. authorities?  Yes.  Would he have warned them?  I’d like to think so, but....  

If Dennis Rader, the “BTK” killer, had confided in his Lutheran pastor that he intended to spend the next 20 years randomly murdering people in Wichita, should the pastor have been bound by his godly duty to keep that secret?  Of course not, but... 

Furthermore, since no absolute line can be drawn between what should and shouldn’t be kept as a confidence between cleric and parishioner, there should BE no such absolute requirement or privilege.

As to the responsibility of a secular therapist, the same standard applies; except that the therapist should be absolutely required to make it clear, beforehand, to any and all patients, that knowledge of criminal acts WILL be reported to police.  To not inform patients of this would be dereliction of duty as a licensed professional.

I do believe that, despite The Lord's injunction against masturbation, a priest with foreknowledge of a parishioner's intention to jack off should be kept confidential.     

I don’t believe that anyone with knowledge of illegal acts that have either been committed or anticipated should be morally, ethically, or legally bound to keep it secret.   

Really? Well, if one can't be honest with their attorney or therapist, that kind of screws up a relationship in total honesty is required to work. Why seek their counsel if they are, de facto, the eyes and ears of the police and prosecution?

One doesn't hire an attorney to help put nails into one's coffin, as it were. His/her job is to avail you of whatever assistance to which you're legally entitled. At the same time, it's unethical for an attorney to assist his or her client pull a fast one on the court, and to do so is the flirt with disbarment.

The point here is that priests and other religious officials should NOT receive a special dispensation to withhold knowledge of criminal acts based upon a privilege conferred upon them by a fictitious deity or a Papal decree.

I don't think clergy generally have a legal right to withhold information gained in confession or counseling, however their religious duty is absolute: not to reveal anything they hear in those contexts without the permission of the confessor or counselee. By and large this is respected. Any Christian cleric who violated the confidence of the confessional might be drummed out of the church.

If some Iman had been informed by one of the hijackers that he was going to fly a plane into the Twin Towers, should he have warned U.S. authorities?  Yes.  Would he have warned them?  I’d like to think so, but....  

Okay, now you've switched context to one outside a formal confessional or therapeutic session. In the case you described, the Imam has merely come into some information. Likewise, if a Catholic or Protestant cleric had been told directly outside of confession or counseling, I'd say he can't really claim an exemption, though he or she might choose to do so and might be willing to go to jail to maintain the trust of a parishoner.

If Dennis Rader, the “BTK” killer, had confided in his Lutheran pastor that he intended to spend the next 20 years randomly murdering people in Wichita, should the pastor have been bound by his godly duty to keep that secret?  Of course not, but...

I'm not sure what you are asserting. After all, what an atheist would do following humanistic notions of ethics is going to be different from someone bound by a completely different set of rules based on religious doctrine and obligation.

Furthermore, since no absolute line can be drawn between what should and shouldn’t be kept as a confidence between cleric and parishioner, there should BE no such absolute requirement or privilege.

I can tell you that the line IS absolute, at least for Catholics, and probably for most Protestants as well: what they hear in the confessional is sacrosanct and is strictly between the confessor and comfessee.

As to the responsibility of a secular therapist, the same standard applies; except that the therapist should be absolutely required to make it clear, beforehand, to any and all patients, that knowledge of criminal acts WILL be reported to police.  To not inform patients of this would be dereliction of duty as a licensed professional.

No, legalities aside, secular therapists are not bound by the same rules as clerics. Clerics have religious obligations. However, while secular counselors and therapists do have legal obligations, these can come into conflict with their professional codes of behavior. It has often happened that such a counselor has refused to hand over notes or to testify against a client, and to avoid such happening has hidden or destroyed notes or refused to testify and ended up doing time in jail.

I do believe that, despite The Lord's injunction against masturbation, a priest with foreknowledge of a parishioner's intention to jack off should be kept confidential.

Okay, where did that come from?

"If Dennis Rader, the “BTK” killer, had confided in his Lutheran pastor that he intended to spend the next 20 years randomly murdering people in Wichita, should the pastor have been bound by his godly duty to keep that secret?  Of course not, but..."

One would truly hope that, if the pastor decided to keep Rader's intentions secret, he would somehow come to his phreakin' senses after the first one, two, three victims.

I wonder how many catholic priests sat through a confessional listening to admonitions of pedophilia and thinking to themselves "What's the problem anyway?" 

Unseen:  your compehensive reply to my comments make it clear that you consider religion as, to use your phrase, “sacrosanct.”  You also believe that the attorney/client privilege is, in a secular sense, also sacrosanct - NO EXCEPTIONS!  I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that assumption trumps either the prevention of a serious, even life-threatening crime, or the revelation of a perpetrator to legal authorities. 

The overarching philosophy you present is that the rituals associated with the worship of an imaginary god and the rigid adherence to professional ethics are more important than ANYTHING, including saving a human life or punishing a serial killer, such as Deacon Rader.  

I am a secular humanist, and for us human welfare exceeds all other considerations, including dogmatic religious practice and the “ethics” some professions have created to assure themselves of a steady stream of trusting clients.

Your examples of a pastor or priest being “drummed out of the church,” or a lawyer risking disbarment pale in comparison to the tacit acquiescence to the commission of a serious crime they could have prevented.  Who cares if a priest is excommunicated or a lawyer is disbarred?  Not I!  If either of them knowingly allowed a murderer (or child rapist, in the case of godly priests) to commit his crime or escape punishment, they deserve more than disrespect from their peers; they deserve to be charged with being complicit in the crime.  People are more important than rules, especially religious rules.  

Cardinal Law, whether he heard it in a confessional, or through the grapevine, was proven to have known that children were being sexually abused and chose to hide it, thus callously allowing it to continue.  In my opinion, he should be rotting in prison along with the priests he protected, like Monsignor Lynn, who is currently serving six years.  At least HE was man enough to admit his crime.  Instead, the cowardly Law slunk off to Rome, ostensibly to serve his Pope.  His REAL reason was fear of suffering the same fate as Monsignor Lynn.  He now enjoys the protection, approbation, and honor accorded to him by the Vatican.  

The people of Ireland are leaving the church in droves because of this hideous disregard for the welfare of children shown by Vatican officials, who stated very arrogantly that the survival of the church was more important than exposing and punishing the crimes of the priests.  Unfortunately, Americans (such as yourself, I’m assuming) are more forgiving than the enraged Irish people who care more about their children than their priests. 

Claiming religious practice (i.e., confession) as a defense against protecting pedophiles should be anathema to civilized people.  You evidently disagree.  At least that's how I read your critique.


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