What, if any, ability does a priest or bishop have in order to stop a brother priest who has confessed to molestation of minors, according to Canon Law?

Very often I hear, and am personally aware of local priests, being re-assigned; so presumably some action can be taken in response to a confession like this. What can a priest do without breaking the seal of the sacrament? What is the strongest action he can take to stop the molester?

  • 1
    It seems to me that a priest hearing the confession would be able to assign a penance that involved the person confessing reporting themselves to a competent authority. Any reason that isn't possible? Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 17:43
  • I added an extension to the answer that answers your question.
    – aska123
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 18:03

2 Answers 2


Canon law is very explicit on this...

The priest can't betray the person confessing (983.1)

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.

Sacramentale sigillum inviolabile est; quare nefas est confessario verbis vel alio quovis et quavis modo de causa aliquatenus prodere paenitentem.

Considering these rules, if the priest confessing sexual attacks only ever discloses it in the sacrament of reconciliation, he is free from any disciplinary action from the bishop.

If he were to disclose such abuses outside the sacrament of reconciliation, (or get caught), only then is he vulnerable to disciplinary actions.

Let's say the Bishop was suspicious about a priest and decided to tell a random person to eavesdrop on the confession...

Canon Law 983.2 covers that

The interpreter, if there is one, and all others who in any way have knowledge of sins from confession are also obliged to observe secrecy.

The priest facing disciplinary actions as a result of such abuses (hopefully) either got caught or disclosed it outside the sacrament of reconciliation.

The priest hearing this confession can encourage him to give himself up.

What if the Priest told the guy confessing that his penance is giving himself up?

Using the example of another type of sin, (murder) Fr. Charles Grondin answered this question saying...

To require that someone turn himself in to the police would be to require him to reveal his confession to a third party. While the sinner is free to do so if he chooses, to require it would appear to be the equivalent of the priest revealing the contents of the confession via a secondary source. In light of canon 984, the priest only knows who the murderer is based on the confession. To require the penitent to turn himself in to the police would be to use that information to the detriment of the penitent. And if the absolution is essentially conditional upon this requirement it would seem to also violate canon 980. If someone is not sufficiently contrite the confessor can simply withhold absolution. If the penitent is sufficiently contrite the priest can most certainly encourage him to turn himself in to the police but to require someone to reveal their confession to another would violate canon law.

Can. 980 If the confessor is in no doubt about the penitent's disposition and the penitent asks for absolution, it is not to be denied or delayed.

Can. 984 §1. A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.

  • 2
    Have a look at Cathy Caridi's blog entry. That has some more discussion. Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 14:24
  • 1
    I already read the blog regularly, it's very good.
    – aska123
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 15:21

Oregon, USA, passed a law requiring the breaking of confidentiality in cases of child abuse/molestation.

Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, teachers, and attorneys all signed on board. The Catholic Church was the only hold out.

It did not do the Church well in the social structure of such a liberal state. The Church (according to media reports) lost their challenge in the state supreme court, but the Church's response was that it would take the risk of a priest's imprisonment for failing to report rather than violate the Sacrament.

The Sacrament is inviolable.

As for moving priests around, this is ubiquitous, not just confined to abuse cases. The typical tenure of a priest at any particular parish is 6 years. There have been some egregious examples which the Church has paid millions of dollars over.

  • "a law requiring the breaking of confidentiality in cases of child abuse/molestation" How does that work, and how is it enforced?
    – Geremia
    Commented Jan 22, 2018 at 0:28
  • Generally, anonymous calls are made to DHS. All concerns are investigated. As far as enforcement, it seems a relative impossibility. I think that was part of the Church's point. In the case of a child's death, the DA can broaden the circle of responsibility to the extent of the law.
    – Stu W
    Commented Jan 22, 2018 at 2:09
  • Do you have any sources for this, especially the response that they would rather face a priest's imprisonment? That would help tremendously. Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 3:53
  • @Thunderforge A bit late perhaps, and a different country, but here's Cardinal Nichols. Personally, I can't see how it's possible if confession is anonymous. Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 17:14

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .