If someone confesses a heinous crime to a priest, does he go to jail?

My fiancee just informed me that confessions are so sacred that a man can confess to rape or murder and work it out with the priest without any risk of going to jail.

Is this true? Most “professionals” I know have confidentiality agreements that go right out the door when a serious crime is involved or suspected (like child abuse). In other words if you are talking to a medical professional and tell them about your life, its confidential…but if you tell them about a crime, or they suspect a crime its not confidential. This distinction is usually explained to you right up front.

I’m not sure how real this scenario is, or if people would confess a murder to a priest, but I imagine in some circles or cultures this might actually happen…maybe like the Italian mafia or something.

If this confidentially is sacred, is it unethical to not protect others from another crime from this individual. Would blood be on the hands of the church if this guy harmed another person because he wasn’t turned in?

The seal of confession is absolute.

The priest cannot reveal anything from confession to anyone.

The priest may withhold absolution unless the participant turns himself in. The priest would certain counsel that the person turn himself in. But, I would think there can be no absolution unless the person turns himself in.

If the person does not turn himself in, he’s still in the state of grave sin as he was before he confessed to the priest. The priest cannot turn him in. A priest can never break the seal of the confessional. A priest who does so may no longer be a priest since the Church would view the violation of the confessional as very serious.

But that does not absolve the man from his crime. He may never be caught, but he is not absolved.

The priest cannot make the absolution depend on the penitent revealing himself. That would violate the seal of confession.

Search these forums, the Catholic dogma and law is explained in other threads.

I would like to agree with that. For example, if you steal a car, the priest would most likely tell you to return it (basically turning yourself in) as penance/to get absolution.

I wanted to add that we have an eithical and moral duty to protect others if possible.

But your scenario speaks to a crime that is already committed. We have no duty to report a crime, after the fact, as men and women. However, as men and women, we cannot obstruct justice, so if the police come calling you cannot lie about what you, as an individual, knew or saw about a crime (including if someone confesses to you), because you would then be committing a further crime – the crime of the obstruction of justice.

A priest can never violate the confessional. If the police come calling, he cannot reveal what he was told about the commission of a crime.

However, doctors, lawyers, priests can report a crime that has NOT yet taken place. That’s not a confession, but a threat. If a priest, doctor or lawyer hears someone say “I am going to kill my wife or boss today”, they can report it because it will protect a life from a crime that has not yet happened. There’s no confession if it has not happened.

If true, then there is no absolution without penance or restitution. If the priest says “I absolve you” and you keep the car you stole, not making restitution, what’s the point? He’s not absolved unless he corrects his mistake – penance by returning the car or turning himself in.

If you rape or kill someone and confess only to the priest, where is the true absolution (the removal of the stain of sin), unless you turn yourself in? The priest is not turning you in; it’s you who must turn yourself in if the sacrament of reconciliation is to be complete.

No, not true; the only reason he can withhold absolution is when the penitent is unrepentant. He can certainly counsel the penitent on what he has to do in order to give evidence of repentance, but absolution is conditional on repentence and contrition, not on actions that are only peripheral or tangential to that. For instance, he could not require a sincerely contrite penitent to repay stolen money as a condition of absolution.

If the penitent’s refusal to turn himself into the authorities indicates lack of contrition, only then could the priest refuse absolution.

IN any case this and all content of the confession are absolutely confidential.

The old Hitchcock movie “I Confess” with Montgomery Clift as the priest is, for once, an accurate Hollywood portrayal of the absolute nature of the seal of confession.

He cannot reveal anything you have said.

But he can gently ask the offender to come forward themselves and will work with them all the way to help them to do so. For whilst one has been forgiven by God, the next step is to be able to forgive oneself. One would never be truelly at peace with yourself if one didn’t own up to the crime. 15/20 years in prison is more than a life time but the memory of what the offender has done will carry with them for life. They will carry the memory with them which ever they choose to do but knowing one has done their time in full and with grace and have learned they have done wrong then they will be at peace with God.

So, yes it is possible that an offender who has committed the worse crime possible if they confess to the priest, the priest cannot break the confidence. How they deal with it when they confess to the bishop etc because surely priests need to offload what they hear in sometimes, off course it all in confession so no one can do anything. Like I say though, the priest does have power to encourage the confessor to own up. A good priest will support them all the way through. For the sinner needs a real friend too. We are all sinners and all in need of that guidence so its no difference when its a crime.

A priest may not, under any circumstances, including his own sacramental confession, reveal the contents of anyone’ else’s confession, not even to the bishop.

The only situation related to this that might arise is a priest who, in violation of canon law, absolves someone whose sin involved the priest himself (a woman he slept with, for instance) and even then he could only reveal details of his own words and actions, not another person and not identifying them by name.

The important thing to remember about confession is that it is a confrontation with the self. It is a moment of conversion & renewal, during which one is expected to accept full responsibility for one’s sins, and, given certain crimes, especially the ones mentioned, this would involve surrendering to the Police. The only exception being if there is danger of imminent death.

Absolution can be given conditionally. Indeed, all absolution is conditional upon completing penance, and a priest can impose a variety of penances, including, I guess, going to the police!

There was, at one time, the matter of reserved sins. These were offenses that were considered so serious that only a bishop could give absolution. But, I must confess, my knowledge of these is far from complete.

The priest can not make absolution conditional on going to the police. He can exhort the penitent to turn himself in but he can absolutely not make absolution conditional upon it. What would be the point of the seal of confession if the priest could get around it so easily?

Penance isn’t even necessary for absolution. Penance is given to pay for the temporal punishment due to sin.

For example, if you stole 1,000 dollars the priest has the ability to grant you absolution but he can’t remove the punishment for that sin. In order to do that the priest may assign a penance to help.

He may ask if it is possible to return the money without implicating yourself. If you refuse that penance he may ask if it is possible to give that amount of money to charity. If that isn’t possible then he may assign a good deed or prayer… ect.

As others have said, the seal of the confessional is truly inviolable. Under no circumstances is the priest allowed to disclose or even act on the knowledge he has gained.

Also, making absolution conditional on that penitent’s publicly revealing his or her sin is also not allowed.

That’s not true.

The seal of the confessional is indeed inviolable, but under normal, secular/natural circumstances, it is actually a crime to fail to report certain crimes. I think it’s stuff like child abuse, rape, murder, things of that very serious nature.

True, but with one caveat: if during a confession - i.e. in the context of that Sacrament - a penitent expresses the intention to do such a thing, the priest cannot reveal that. The law is that he cannot reveal or act on any knowledge gained while hearing a confession.

Nonetheless, priests are not allowed to make public revelation of one’s sin/crime a condition for absolution. The most he can do is exhort the penitent to turn himself or herself in.

If you mean absolution doesn’t take effect if the penitent has no intention of doing any penance, then you’re right.

If you mean absolution doesn’t take effect until the penitent completes the assigned penance, then no, that is incorrect:

Performing the penance doesn’t affect the absolution. The absolution is free from God and entirely remits the eternal punishment for the sins you’ve committed after baptism (or after your last confession). The penance helps to chip away at the temporal punishment for your sins (i.e. your attachment to sin). It also is a way for the penitent to express his or her sorrow for sin more fully.

No priest is allowed to make one’s publicly revealing one’s sin(s) a condition for absolution. He can only encourage and exhort the penitent to do so.

no absolution is not conditional upon performing a penance

In Poland the priest sometimes sends you to the Bishop for confession if it is serious.

Serious doesn’t have to mean a state crime but things like abortion, ivf and such.

I am familiar with the film. I never said the priest can break the seal of the confession.

You either misread or took my reply out of context. Individuals, you and I, have no legal obligation under secular law to report a crime. If the police come and ask you if you know of such and such crime, at that point you must be honest or charged with the crime of obstruction yourself.

Please read what I said – people, not priests.

Child abuse being the exception because it’s generally followed by a pattern and may be ongoing. On that point, you are correct and I neglected to distinguish this crime from all others. Also, because the child may not be able, nor may not have the capacity to report the crime – so in that case you are correct because adults are responsible for children who cannot protect themselves.

I am sorry that I did not distinguish this crime from all others, but it’s not always possible in a post to come up with every possible secular scenario. Child abuse must be reported by us – as individuals. You can check; you don’t have to report a murder or a rape that you have knowledge of. This, of course, belies the morality of letting crime go unreported but God will judge.

You have no legal obligation to report a murder, rape or theft, unless the police ask you if you have knowledge of the crime, and then you cannot lie. Should you tell the truth – absolutely. Because then you can be charged with a crime and because you violate God’s commandment. But you cannot be secularly charged for not reporting a rape or murder, until or unless you are approached and choose to obstruct the police.

Priests, as I said, can never violate the seal of the confessional. That, if you read what I said, may be so serious that the priest can lose his holy orders if he violates the seal of the confessional. I know the priest will encourage the person to turn himself in and/or return stolen items, etc. and make restitution. If the crime is serious enough, the criminal can go to jail, but NOT because of the actions of the priest. Nowhere did I ever say the priest can violate the seal of the confessional.

However, telling anyone who has privilege that you WILL kill someone today is different and indicates imminent harm. Those must be reported to save a life.

But if I go to the priest to say I am thinking of embezzling money from my company because I am in a financial mess, there’s nothing a priest will do but counsel me against it. He can absolve me of my thoughts, but if I return and admit that I have taken the money but will not return it and will not turn myself in, I would say that no amount of absolution will take away the sin because I am not penitent. I’m sure if I lie to the priest and say I will when I have no intention of returning the funds, the confession is invalid. If I tell the priest I cannot or will not return the money, but want absolution, how am I repentent and how can the priest absolve me when I refuse?

No he may not.

In the case of abortion, the person is excommunicated (latae sententiae excommunicatio). Priests can not lift that unless that authority is explicitly given to them by their bishop (generally the case in the US, maybe not in Poland).

That is completely wrong.
Absolution is not conditional.

Either the priest believes the penitent is really repentant and gives him/her absolution or the priest believes the penitent is not repentant and he does not give him/her absolution.
There is no conditional absolution.