By Gina Christian
(OSV News) — A retired Milwaukee priest has been barred from hearing confession and giving absolution, following an essay he wrote favoring legislation that would require priests to report child abuse they learn of during confession.
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee said in a March 22 statement that he has “immediately removed the canonical faculties” of Father James E. Connell “to validly celebrate the sacrament of confession and to offer absolution here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and thereby also in the Catholic Church around the world.”
The archbishop also advised Father Connell that “effective immediately he is to cease all … erroneous communications that distort the teachings of the church about the confessional seal.”
The move followed a March 13 opinion piece by Father Connell, published through the USA Today Network, urging “all people in Delaware” to support proposed HB 74, which would repeal that state’s clergy-penitent privilege statute and mandate priests to report instances of child abuse disclosed in the confessional.
In a March 7 statement, the Diocese of Wilmington condemned the bill, saying “the sacrament of confession and its seal … (are) a fundamental aspect of the Church’s sacramental theology and practice” and “non-negotiable.”
A similar bill is under consideration in Vermont, where Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington testified against it March 3 before that state’s Senate Judiciary Committee.
Canon law speaks extensively to the sacrament of confession, explicitly detailing the responsibilities of both confessor and penitent. Canon 983 declares “the sacramental seal (as) inviolable,” making it “absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.”
Father Connell, a canon lawyer and the former vice chancellor of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, has been an outspoken advocate for clergy sexual abuse victims in recent years, having helped to create Catholic Whistleblowers, a network of clergy, religious and laity who work to expose clerical abuse and support survivors.
In 2013, the group sent a letter to Pope Francis with six recommendations — including the establishment of a survivor-led committee within the Vatican — to address clerical sexual abuse.
But in 2009, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that victim advocates had called for Father Connell’s removal, claiming he had covered up abuse by a Milwaukee priest. The archdiocese defended Father Connell, dismissing such accusations as “simply false.”
In a 2010 interview with the newspaper, Father Connell said the controversy had proven life-changing and inspired his victim advocacy.
“No institution in our society, not even a recognized religion, has a significant advantage over governments’ compelling interest and responsibility to protect its children from harm by abuse or neglect,” he wrote in his opinion piece. “Thus, no valid freedom of religion argument rooted in the absence of truth can provide a moral justification for sheltering perpetrators of abuse or neglect of children from their deserved punishment, while also endangering potential victims. … As a result, governments should intervene such that, while perhaps frustrating the free exercise of religion for some people, the greater good of protecting children from abuse or neglect would be enhanced for the common good of all people. Our society should protect children, rather than protecting culprits.”
Yet breaking the seal of confession, even for the reporting of child sexual abuse, is “gravely contrary to the definitive teachings of the Catholic Church about this sacrament,” wrote Archbishop Listecki, adding that “the Archdiocese of Milwaukee fully assents to (the) fundamental tenet of the Catholic faith” expressed in the inviolability of the confessional seal.
Archbishop Listecki said “the false assertions of Father James Connell have caused understandable and widespread unrest among the People of God, causing them to question if the privacy of the confessional can now be violated, by him or any other Catholic priest.”
The Wilmington (Delaware) Diocese noted in its statement that while it “(supports) initiatives to make Delaware a safer place for minors and vulnerable adults, HB 74 would not contribute to such efforts in any meaningful way.”
“Priests are already mandatory reporters under Delaware’s child abuse reporting law in all circumstances other than the sacrament of confession,” said the Wilmington Diocese, adding that its “own internal policies require all clergy to report suspected incidents of child abuse to civil authorities.”
The Wilmington Diocese also said that HB 74 would “not only infringe on the rights of a variety of faith communities,” but “would also give rise to a number of unintended consequences.” Among them, the diocese indicated priests would face a “nearly impossible” and impractical legal demand to report specific abusers when “the overwhelming majority of sacramental confessions are anonymous.”