Key point 3-08.09. Clergy can be liable for disclosing communications shared with them in confidence to others without the permission of the counselee.
A Louisiana appeals court ruled that the First Amendment religion clauses prevented the civil courts from resolving a parishioner's claim that a priest improperly disclosed his confidential communications without permission. A parishioner (the "plaintiff") learned that a priest had disclosed to others the fact that he had visited the priest for confession, as well as the substance of what was said. The plaintiff sued the priest for invasion of privacy. His lawsuit made the following assertions:
A foundation doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable.
Pursuant to his oath to the Church, a priest is compelled never to break that seal.
Neither is a priest allowed to admit that someone went to confession to him.
This is not a gray area in the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church and a priest who violates the seal of Confession incurs an automatic excommunication.
The standard of secrecy protecting a confession outweighs any form of professional confidentiality or secrecy. When a person unburdens his soul and confesses his sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Penance, a very sacred trust is formed. The priest must maintain absolute secrecy about anything that a person confesses.
The plaintiff claimed that the priest violated his First Amendment rights and invaded his privacy when he "disregarded the sacramental seal and informed other individuals without express permission" that the plaintiff had visited him for confession. The plaintiff also sued the local bishop, claiming that he contributed to the priest's wrongful behavior by failing to remedy his conduct "after he learned of the violation of the sacramental seal of confession." The plaintiff sued the diocese arguing that it was vicariously responsible for the wrongful acts of its priest.
The defendants asked the court to dismiss all of the plaintiff's claims on the ground that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom barred civil court interference with a foundational religious doctrine. The plaintiff countered by asserting that the court could address his claims since the priest's actions "went beyond the scope of an internal religious matter and, therefore, outside the scope of the First Amendment's protections."
The court agreed with the church defendants and dismissed the case. It observed:
Plaintiff's claims fall within the scope of internal religious affairs as they are predicated on: (1) the breach of the sacramental seal of confession, as defined by the Roman Catholic Church; and (2) the bishop's failure to remedy the breach in accordance with church doctrine. In order to discern whether plaintiff has asserted meritorious claims against the church defendants, the court would have to interpret church doctrine relating to the sacrament of confession and otherwise encroach upon the internal affairs of the Roman Catholic Church. Application of long-standing First Amendment jurisprudence, therefore, mandates that this court refrain from considering plaintiff's claims.
Cases Addressing the Liability of a Church or Pastor for
the Pastor's Disclosure Of Confidential Information