Can a Priest Ever Reveal What is Said in Confession?

Selected Canons from the Orthodox Church of America (1998)

  1. The priest, as spiritual father and confessor of the flock entrusted to his care, must determine the frequency with which the spiritual child confesses his/her sins.
  2. For those who seldom receive Holy Communion, the priest must keep in all its strictness the obligation for confession before communion.
  3. If General Confession is practiced, then the Order of Prayers before Confession must be read. The General Service of Prayers before Confession is not meant to replace or be a substitute for personal confession.
  4. The secrecy of the Mystery of Penance is considered an unquestionable rule in the entire Orthodox Church. Theologically, the need to maintain the secrecy of confession comes from the fact that the priest is only a witness before God. One could not expect a sincere and complete confession if the penitent has doubts regarding the practice of confidentiality. Betrayal of the secrecy of confession will lead to canonical punishment of the priest. The Spiritual Father has to keep confessions confidential, even under strong constraining influence. A priest who betrays the secrecy of confession is to be deposed.

St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite:

“Nothing else remains after confession, Spiritual Father, except to keep the sins you hear a secret, and to never reveal them, either by word, or by letter, or by a bodily gesture, or by any other sign, even if you are in danger of death, for that which the wise Sirach says applies to you: “Have you heard a word? Let it die with you” (Sir. 19:8); meaning, if you heard a secret word, let the word also die along with you, and do not tell it to either a friend of yours or an enemy of yours, for as long as you live. And further still, that which the Prophet Micah says: “Trust not in friends… beware of thy wife, so as not to commit anything to her” (Mic. 7:5).

For if you reveal them, firstly, you will be suspended or daresay deposed completely by the Ecclesiastical Canons, and according to political laws you will be thrown in jail for the rest of your life and have your tongue cut out. Secondly, you become a reason for more Christians not to confess, being afraid that you will reveal their sins, just as it happened during the time of Nektarios of Constantinople when the Christians did not want to confess on account of a Spiritual Father who revealed the sin of a woman.

The Byzantine Nomocanon states, in Canon 120:

“A spiritual father, if he reveals to anyone a sin of one who had confessed receives a penance: he shall be suspended [from serving] for three years, being able to receive Communion only once a month, and must do 100 prostrations every day.”

Roman Catholic Canons

Q: A priest who hears confessions is forbidden to reveal their contents to others. But does that hold if someone admits in the confessional that he has committed sexual crimes? Can a priest blackmail a believer on the basis of his/her secret confession? Roman Catholic Canon 983.1 tells us right up front that the sacramental seal is inviolable, and thus it is “absolutely wrong” for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion. The official Latin text of this canon is even stronger: the word nefas, which is translated here as “absolutely wrong,” actually has no direct equivalent in English. It refers to something that is so wickedly sinful, so abominably execrable, that it is simply impossible to do it! Priests are all acutely aware that the penalty for violating the seal of the confessional is excommunication (c. 1388.1), and they certainly do not take this lightly.

A nurse in a hospital ward, for example, might easily hear what a patient is saying to a priest in the course of making his confession in his hospital room. Or someone waiting in line for confession may inadvertently hear what the person ahead of him is telling the priest inside the confessional. In fact, if they knowingly and willfully repeat another person’s confession, they themselves may be punished by a sanction, up to and including excommunication (c. 1388.2). But there may be occasions when a priest may mention a confession which he heard, but in a way that does not reveal the identity of the person who made it. Seminary professors, for example, can provide their moral theology students with examples of concrete ethical situations that they encountered in the course of hearing confessions. So long as there is no way for the listener to infer who it was who made this particular confession, the seal of the confessional remains intact.

Depending on the situation, a priest may also be able to encourage the person to turn himself in to the authorities. The priest might even offer to accompany the penitent to the police station when he does this; but in such a case he would still be forbidden to repeat the contents of the person’s confession to others. At the same time, however, a confessor is forbidden to go to the police with specific information about a penitent criminal to turn himself in, or at least to change his plans, a priest is not allowed to take this information to the police of his own accord. No matter how difficult it may be, he must keep this to himself. We can incidentally see here one more excellent reason to pray for our priests, that they be given the strength to bear such weighty burdens!