Priest-lawyer Rips Breach Of Silent Rite `Confession' Under Attack

Posted: June 03, 1996

In ``Prayer for the Dying,'' hit man Mickey Rourke kills a rival gangster, then discovers a Catholic priest saw the shooting. He follows the priest, Bob Hoskins, back to church, enters a confessional and confesses his murder - binding the enraged priest, upon pain of excommunication, to silence.

* The seal of the Catholic confessional - the stuff of church history, schoolyard legend, even movie plots - is under attack.

In Oregon, prison officials secretly taped a triple-murder suspect's confession to a Catholic priest. A local prosecutor who defended the bugging now says he won't use the tape, but he doesn't want to destroy it either.

The bugging, and efforts in several Southern states to compel ministers to testify in child-abuse cases, are serious breaches, says the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's priest-lawyer expert on the confessional.

``You're talking about undermining the whole sacrament,'' said the Rev. Michael Fitzgerald, director of legal services. ``Let's face it, even for a very good practicing Catholic, it is not an easy thing to go to confession . . .

``There are so many invasions of privacy. This is one area where people have an expectation of privacy and security.''

Oregon, like Pennsylvania and other states, protects the confidentiality of spiritual conversations involving clergy of all faiths, and no local cases have involved the issue. But Oregon also allows jailers to tape any conversation not involving a lawyer.

When Conan Wayne Hale, 20, jailed in Lane County, Ore., on theft charges related to the deaths of three teen-agers, asked to see a priest in April, jailers rolled tape without either man's knowledge.

Contents of the tape have never been revealed, but District Attorney Doug Harcleroad in Eugene said he would play it as evidence. He has since apologized for that idea and said the tape had no role in Thursday's grand jury indictment of Hale on murder charges.

The case sent shock waves all the way to the Vatican, which handed a communication to U.S. Ambassador Raymond Flynn insisting that the tape and transcripts be destroyed.

Fitzgerald said Oregon officials exploited ``a loophole that I doubt the legislature even thought of in that context.'' But states, concerned about rising crime rates, are enacting ``very broadly worded'' laws that can be interpreted to include the clergy, he said.

Those laws raise serious First Amendment issues of state interference with free exercise of religion. He said the Oregon case, while ``extreme'' and ``shocking,'' begs a long-unasked question: Should there be exceptions to clergy privilege?

``As our society becomes more secular, issues that were automatic in the past are going to be challenged,'' he said.

Fitzgerald, 48, a Villanova Law School graduate and civil lawyer, gained a 1991 canon (church) law doctorate in Rome with a dissertation on confessional legal issues, especially relating to child abuse.

He hears confessions in his home parish, but said his study stemmed from ``potential clashes of church law and civil law coming up,'' not personal experience.

Confession for Catholics, called the sacrament of reconciliation or penance, is central to the faith.

``Sins committed after baptism are forgiven, and a person is reconciled with God and the church,'' the Catholic Almanac says.

Every parish school kid has heard of medieval priests martyred by despot kings for keeping confessional secrets. But child abuse, an old problem gaining a higher legal profile, is fraught with ``borderline situations,'' Fitzgerald said. For example, a priest hearing a sickbed confession in a home sees an act of abuse. Should it be reported?

Fitzgerald said people ``can and will raise the issue'' that the church must make all efforts to stop abuse. But he said no exceptions should be made to cloud the role of the priest.

The priest's role, he said, should be to direct the abuser to counseling or other help as the contrition required for all confessions.

If penitents don't trust their priest, he said, ``you may be slamming that last door.''

Fitzgerald said confessional silence must be maintained even if the abuser is another priest.

As for Mickey Rourke's ploy, Fitzgerald said the priest would not need to be silent because the contrition and sincerity of complete confession would be absent.

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