Sacramental Confession and Turning Oneself In to Civil Authorities

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, among the recommendations of its final report

recommended that

Recommendation 16.26

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should consult with the Holy See, and make public any advice received, in order to clarify whether:

b. if a person confesses during the sacrament of reconciliation to perpetrating child sexual abuse, absolution can and should be withheld until they report themselves to civil authorities.

The same idea has been put out for consideration by others. The Apostolic Penitentiary's Recent Note on the Seal of Confession, addresses this idea, and appears to reject it categorically.

In the presence of sins that involve criminal offenses, it is never permissible, as a condition for absolution, to place on the penitent the obligation to turn himself in to civil justice, by virtue of the natural principle, incorporated in every system, according to which "nemo tenetur se detegere".

The note recognizes, however, that sincere repentance, together with the firm intention to reform and not repeat the evil committed, is necessary for the validity of sacramental absolution.

At the same time, however, belonging to the very "structure" of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as a condition for its validity, is sincere repentance, together with the firm intention to reform and not repeat the evil committed.

In a very technical sense, the note may be correct, that a confessor by his own authority may not "place", in the sense of externally "impose", as a kind of penalty or satisfaction, the obligation on the penitent to turn himself in to civil justice. However, in a practical sense, the claim is over-stated. Cases are certainly possible, and are virtually certain to sometimes occur, where the only way a sinner and criminal can show true repentance and a firm intention not to repeat the evil, is for him to turn himself in. If, for example, he has continued to commit such crimes for a long time, despite knowing their gravity and perhaps even having confessed them repeatedly, a firm intention not to repeat the evil committed has to include means that give him a reasonable hope of avoiding it, e.g., the external help he could get from medical or civil authorities.

The claim is probably also over-stated in the sense that the Church could impose a discipline that would exclude purely private penance in this particular case. In view of the Church's ancient practice of public penance and in light of its general and universal authority in the external forum, it is surely in the Church's and the pope's authority to reserve the crime of sexual abuse of children to the Holy See, and to make public penance (whether imposed by the Church or as a punishment imposed by the state and accepted by the sinner) a condition for giving absolution for such crimes.

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