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Friday, 15 June, 2001, 17:14 GMT 18:14 UK
Crisis in the confessional
Hitchcock's film I confess
Opinion has changed since Hitchcock's film I Confess
By Hugh Schofield in Paris

The dilemma has been around as long as priests have been hearing and forgiving the sins of the faithful.

What to do when the sin is a heinous crime, punishable with the full force of the secular law?

Half a century ago, in Hitchcock's film I Confess, Montgomery Clift played a Roman Catholic priest who hears the confession of a murderer.

Because of his vows, he refuses to tell the police and finds himself the chief suspect.

Even as recently as then, the sanctity of the confessional was taken for granted.

What has happened since is two-fold: first, the growing secularisation of western society, so that the religious process of avowal leading to divine pardon is no longer comprehensible.

And second, the explosion of public knowledge of child sex abuse, and its elevation into the ultimate modern sin.

Priests vs police

Thus we have in France today the case of bishop facing charges and a possible jail term for refusing to break the confessional confidences of a paedophile.

According to the prosecution, Bishop Pierre Pican was criminally negligent when he failed to report the activities of Father Rene Bissey, convicted last October on 11 counts of sex abuse, even though he knew of them for two years.

Bishop Pican
Bishop Pican refused to break the secrecy of the confessional
According to the church, the bishop could certainly have acted differently - by taking a more active interest in the affair, for example, and persuading Bissey to turn himself in - but his essential decision not to reveal the secrecy of the confession was sound.

The church's reasoning is simple: if there are exceptions allowed in the inviolability of the confession, then it automatically becomes meaningless.

What sinner would be encouraged to lighten his conscience and start the process of spiritual healing, if he feared he might be turned in to the police at the church door?

And how could a priest act as a link between a man and his God if his also the ecclesiastical wing of the judiciary?


Eight centuries ago, the doctrine was clear enough. As Pope Innocent III put it in 1215, "Whoever reveals a sin announced at the tribunal of penitence ... must be stripped of his priestly office and committed to life in a monastery of strict observance."

But today, priests are seen as men like any others, with responsibilities to society that outweigh their duties to the church.

Bishop Pican may have been acting out of concern for the immortal soul of a sinner, but he neglected the actual suffering of the sinner's victims.

They, in the modern world, are regarded as rather more important.

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15 Jun 01 | Europe
Bishop kept quiet over paedophile
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