Catholic doctrine and law prohibit a Catholic priest from testifying in criminal court against someone, solely on the basis of a 'heard' confession: there is never an instance when a priest can divulge information received through confession. My question is: are there other denominations which have this codified in there canons or laws? Catholic priests are trained to respond in a short and sweet answer when pressed by police or prosecutors to divulge confessional information - even if that information could prevent a new crime; "We are in the business of saving souls, not lives."


To my knowledge the Catholic Church is the only denomination to reject mandatory reporting laws. Most Protestant churches now strongly emphasise training related to child safety and disclosures, and anyone confessing sexual abuse crimes will be told that those they are confessing to have a civil duty to report the confession to police. Most Protestants would probably also believe they have a moral duty to report these confessions. I know less about the Orthodox churches, but I did see that the Orthodox Church in America also accepts mandatory reporting laws.

Where the crimes confessed are not of a child abuse or sexual nature mandatory reporting usually does not apply, and other laws may protect or require the confidentiality of confessions. But the fact that mandatory reporting laws are accepted is enough to answer your question: no, other denominations do not protect all confessions.

And just personally, I do not think the Catholic Church's argument is remotely convincing. Of course we are in the business of saving souls. Most of the time being made to face civil justice is a good thing for someone's spirituality. The church should not intentionally be standing in the way of that.

  • Beyond the religious question, there is also an underlying legal question here. This varies by country and in the US it also varies by state. In general, communications with clergy are considered legally privileged. For instance, in New York, it is technically illegal for clergy to violate this privilege, and even if they chose to, their testimony would be considered inadmissible in court. See NY CPLR § 4505 (2012).
    – Dan
    Apr 9 '18 at 2:29
  • @Dan Right, but mandatory reporting laws overrides those laws.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 9 '18 at 2:46
  • @curiousdannii only in some states, and not in New York. See the chart on p. 3. Very few states outright deny legal privilege. It's also very difficult to discern what type of communications are privileged, and there are very few cases of actually prosecuting clergy for failure to report in most states.
    – Dan
    Apr 9 '18 at 2:49
  • @Dan Okay interesting. I think in Australia the states are much more consistent. I wonder too whether beginning a counselling/confession session saying "I cannot keep all secrets and I may have to report criminal behaviour" (as Protestants often do) would be enough for any subsequent confessions to implicitly mean the confessor has waived confidentiality. In any case, the devil's in the details, and I think it is still true that where there are mandatory reporting laws, to my knowledge only the CC rejects them.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 9 '18 at 2:52
  • @curiousdannii as you noted, this is now standard practice for many Protestant pastoral counselors. The biggest issue in the US is what is called the “priest-penitent privilege”, which originally envisioned the traditional confession practiced Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priests, but came to be interpreted more broadly in later case law in many states. There is also legal privilege afforded to journalists to protect their sources in the US, as a fun fact (although the lines have gotten blurry in recent years when issues of national security are at issue).
    – Dan
    Apr 9 '18 at 2:56

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