Even if you’re not Catholic, you probably already know that a confession made to Catholic priests is protected both by the church and the government. But that doesn’t mean that anyone of any religion can tell their clergy leader about past crimes and expect those same spiritual and legal protections. If you need to get a crime off your chest, you must first know which church you can safely confess to.
What Happens if You Confess a Crime to a Catholic Priest?
The Catholic Church is very dedicated to the sanctity of confession, and priests can face ex-communication from the church when they are found guilty of breaking the inviolable seal of the confessional, no matter the reason. While a priest may urge a person to admit to their crimes or warn police that a person is in danger, he may not reveal information regarding the confessor’s identity.
In one case in Oregon, when the police secretly taped a confessional booth, the church not only insisted the tape be excluded from evidence but also pushed for the recording to be immediately destroyed. The bottom line is that if you feel the need to confess to a criminal act but don’t want to risk getting caught, you can always have faith in the confidentiality you share with the confessor at a Catholic church —even if you are not actually Catholic yourself and do not believe in the sacrament.
What About Confessions to Priests and Ministers of Other Religions?
When it comes to confessing to religious leaders of other faiths though, things are not nearly so black and white. Each organization has its own canon law about the sanctity of confessions to spiritual leaders. While some protect such conversations, others establish policies they believe will help those who have “gone astray.” Some churches have specific rules stating that a priest does have to report a crime in certain instances.
Some sects even require spiritual leaders to inform other members of the church (and the whole congregation in some instances) when they feel someone has sinned. These denominations tend to feel that this is a good way to discourage others from sinning and to get other members of the church to help guide the individual who made the error so they can avoid doing so again.
The Constitution Largely Protects a Church’s Choice of Privacy
The First Amendment’s religious protections allow churches to handle confession however they see fit, whether that means keeping them entirely secret from everyone else, like the Catholic church, or telling all other members of the church. Even for Catholics, evidence of child abuse acquired when the communication is not confidentially made under the seal of confession makes the priest subject to mandatory reporting Priests may voluntarily choose to reveal other information about criminal offenses to investigators as long as they did not obtain this knowledge during privileged communications.
Attorneys urge anyone who wants to speak to their spiritual leaders about a crime to do some research first and only confess where admissions are safe. If you are not 100% certain that your church protects confession, do not confess unless you are prepared to face the consequences of your secret being shared.
Some Governments Requrie Clergy Members to Report Crimes
A few states and countries have attempted to force priests to report child abuse, even while made under the seal of confession. National and state laws are some of the only cases where a confession to even a Catholic priest can be used as evidence in court, though the church has continually fought against mandatory reporting laws. Because the Supreme Court has historically given much weight to constitutional religious protections, it’s difficult to say if these laws would hold up if they were appealed to the nation’s highest court.
Interestingly, California Penal Code Section 11165.7 (PC) labels clergy members as mandatory reporters, but section 11166 specifies that any information obtained during “penitential communication” is excluded from the law. In other words, if a member of a religious organization becomes aware that someone has been abusing or neglecting a child, they must bring this information to the authorities unless they uncovered the knowledge through confession or a similar religious rite.
Unsure Whether to Confess Your Sins?
If you still aren’t sure whether you should talk to your religious leader about a crime you have committed, please call attorney Peter M. Liss first. Alternatively, consider confessing your crimes to your lawyer or your psychiatrist, as they have also been granted privileged communication rights under the law. On the other hand, remember that your spouse may choose to testify against you, even if your communications are protected. You can schedule a free initial consultation by calling (760) 643-4050.