Is there any canon, regulation, norm or diocesan norm which requires priests to report confessions of child abuse? Are priests obliged to follow laws to this effect?

I'm not asking in regard to child sexual abuse committed by other priests as has been reported in the news over the last decade or so, but the kind of stuff that, if someone came to a physician or a psychologist for help with, the person involved would have to report to authorities.

  • 3
    I assume you're asking for answers from the perspective of the church, not the law-makers? But a small point re the start of your second paragraph: the complicating factor is that in many cases it has come to light that the offender has confessed to fellow priests on the matter - so in many ways it can still be relevant. Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 5:53
  • Yeah, I almost said obliged to follow "human law" but I thought it wasn't necessary to say human here. But on the second part of your comment, I'm specifically not asking about priest confessions, just confessions of the laity.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 11:05
  • Here's a relevant news story: catholicsun.org/2014/07/09/…
    – Geremia
    Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 18:06

3 Answers 3


Within the Confessional

Canon Law specifically and absolutely forbids the priest from divulging anything sacramentally confessed (Can 983).

That said, and notwithstanding Canon 980, it would be possible for a priest to withhold absolution from a penitent until she has reported any crime to the authorities herself. The priest may legitimately have doubts about the penitent's penitence until she accepts the consequences of her actions.

I have been told that if a priest has plans to travel on a particular plane, and someone sacramentally confesses that that flight is to be hijacked and brought down, the priest must not alter his own behaviour and travel on a different plane. He must act as if he had heard nothing.

There is scope for conflict with civil law. In the United Kingdom, it is not normally an offence not to report criminal activity, but terrorism, money-laundering, treason and the failure to lawfully dispose of a body must be reported. A priest who hears such a confession is bound by civil law to report the crime and by canon law not to do so. Other countries may expand that list of applicable crimes.

Outside the Confessional

The requirement to maintain the secrecy of the sacramental confession does not bind anything confessed outside the sacrament of Reconciliation.

In the United Kingdom, it is not a criminal offence not to report or make an allegation of child abuse. Even if such a report is made, a priest could not give evidence such as "X told me that she had," because that's hearsay. Additional primary evidence would be required.

In England and Wales, the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service says

An adult who provides information should be encouraged to share that information with the statutory agencies, where appropriate.

They should be offered support by the Local Safeguarding Representative to do so.

If the adult or child providing information about another child request anonymity when the Safeguarding Officer makes the referral to Children's Social Care Services or the Police, those agencies will respect their wishes as far as possible. However, where investigations proceed to Court this may not be possible to maintain at all times.

An adult in an official or lay position of trust within the Church cannot expect to remain anonymous when a referral is made. 

In the case of an offender confessing outside the Confessional, there is a duty to report, and to encourage the offender to tell the authorities herself.

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    "I have been told that if a priest has plans to travel... the priest must not alter his own behaviour and travel on a different plane. He must act as if he had heard nothing." That is a popular saying, and even some priests will say it, but it is not in the canons. Canons 983-84 give clear regulation for the use of knowledge gained in condition. It can be used - though of course, never in a way that reveals a penitent's identity or sins. See: intratext.com/IXT/ENG0017/_P3F.HTM
    – Ryan Haber
    Commented Sep 30, 2012 at 4:58
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    For example, can. 984 §1 states, "The confessor is wholly forbidden to use knowledge acquired in confession to the detriment of the penitent, even when all danger of disclosure is excluded." This specifically means that it might be used in other ways not to the detriment of the penitent. For instance, the priest might call and place an anonymous tip that there is a terror plot. In a society where his religious obligation will be respected, he might do so personally. In doing so, he neither betrays the penitent nor abdicates authentic social responsibility.
    – Ryan Haber
    Commented Sep 30, 2012 at 5:02
  • The physical location of a confessional is not the sacrosanct thing; it is the act of sacramental confession. The sacramental confession might take place discreetly in a shopping mall, and be perfectly valid, and completely protected by the law of God and His Church. If someone mentions having done a crime, or knowing such information, outside of the context of a sacramental confession, then the canons clearly do not protect such communications. They are confessions in one sense, but not in the sense meant when we talk about the sacrament.
    – Ryan Haber
    Commented Sep 30, 2012 at 5:05
  • I think the issue of how and where a confession is sacramental belongs in another question. What makes a confession sacramental?
    – Caleb
    Commented Sep 30, 2012 at 6:45
  • 1
    I saw on old Mattlock or Diagnosis Murder episode where a murderer is fleeing the scene and is caught by a priest. The murderer immediately falls to his knees and begins confessing. The priest, bound by the Canon law, remains silent about who he saw, even after he, himself, was accused of the murder. Is this even a scenario that is possible, or could the priest refuse to hear the confession then report the murder?
    – user3961
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 21:59

If a priest violates the seal of confession, he is automatically excommunicated, period. Even if someone confesses to being a rapist, serial killer that enjoys hitting kittens with a baseball bat, the priest violates the seal of confession, that priest is still excommunicated.

There are norms for the reporting of child abuse (and often if a child is willing to mention something in confession, the child will be willing to mention something while not in confession) which have developed over the past couple of decades and they vary from diocese to diocese. Paterson diocese, for example, has the standard of "If you suspect a child is being harmed, call DYFS immediately, then call <the person in charge of this type of investigation at the diocesan level>." They've actually put posters up saying this. While I cannot imagine Newark diocese being any different, they have not put up posters (to my knowledge).


No. What is said during the Sacrament of Penance, must be secret and it's inviolable. The Seal of Confession must not be violated, no matter how serious is the fault, not even if it could save another life. The priest cannot disclose anything that is said during a Penance, directly or indirectly. To make an extreme example, if a man, during the Penance, confess to put poison in the chalice that will be used in the next mass, the priest cannot warn anyone about that, or clean it, or do anything about it. That's it. He can't save a life. He can only put the absolution under a condition: "clean the poison and save the priest, then God will forgive you".

Wikipedia explains well this concept, here

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