Since issues regarding breaking the seal of confession from time to time online, I will write the “for dummies” version of how to respond if this happens. To begin, directly breaking the seal is latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication: they are cut off from the Church and cannot licitly celebrate or receive the sacraments except if death is at hand. However, indirectly breaking the seal depends on the bishop to punish as he sees fit.
Breaking the seal is extremely rare. It only happens if a priest reveals both the penitent and the confessed sin together.
Step 1 if the seal is broken
Here’s what to do if a priest breaks the seal of confession:
No matter what:
- Tell the priest in no uncertain terms.
- Report it to the bishop. If he breaks the seal only in private, then you can alternately write to the Apostolic Penitentiary below.
- A bishop may clarify that what happened was not a break of the seal as a break requires combining the penitent and the sin. Just revealing one is not a break of the seal. If the bishop says this and you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to ask for an explanation. If you aren’t an expert and you are not sure about the bishop’s explanation, I would err on the side of accepting it. If you understand the theology and know the bishop is wrong, then follow up on the priest and indicate the bishop is not taking care of matters properly.
Follow-up to a broken seal
If any time after 2 weeks later, you see the priest celebrating the sacraments:
- Ask him for an apology.
- Ask to see the decree from the Vatican lifting his excommunication.
Note: the time here is not exact but the bishop might take a bit of time to put him on leave. Plus, the bishop can temporarily return him to ministry while awaiting the official lifting of the excommunication by the Apostolic Penitentiary. But by 2 weeks that should be back.
If he has no decree lifting his excommunication or no proof of no excommunication, move on the next step. (For a private break of the seal, he may just give you a reference number as the Vatican allows priests to burn the document in that case and refer only to the reference number at the apostolic penitentiary.):
- Write the Vatican with the details at this address (they should respond ASAP as even thought they are famously slow in other things, they are pretty fast here – the Apostolic Penitentiary said they respond to something like 90% of requests that day and 1000% between the day they arrive and the next day)
If the seal was broken in private:
Cardinal Mauro Piacenza
Palazzo della Cancelleria
Piazza della Cancelleria 1
If the seal was broken in a public matter:
Cardinal Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, SJ
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Piazza del S. Uffizio 11
Yes, this is THAT serious.
Note: this was an old reddit post from 8 years ago that I had said then I might make into a blog. I just saw someone reference it and could not find a blog version, so here it is. A few changes were made, but it is similar..
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