Although a man had boasted of his sexual abuse of his daughter on social media, what he told to his Mormon church leaders in a confessional context remains protected.
by Massimo Introvigne
Bitter Winter has published several articles and series on the secret of confession and how it is and should be protected by the laws. That priests of the Roman Catholic Church and other clergy who receive a confession cannot be requested to disclose it to the police or courts of law is a principle of religious liberty enshrined in the laws of most countries. For the Catholic Church, the secret of the confession is so sacred that a priest who would disclose what he heard in confession, even if a secular law compels him to do it, would be immediately excommunicated.
Recently, a breach has been opened in some countries, including Ireland and Australia, in cases of child sexual abuse. Laws now require priests and other representatives of religious bodies to report to the police information about cases of sexual abuse of minors they have received in confession. The Catholic Church has instructed his priests not to comply with these laws, even if this may involve the risk of being arrested.
Bitter Winter regards these laws as a gross violation of religious liberty. They are also ineffective, because few if any pedophiles reveal details of their crimes useful to the police in confession, and they would not reveal anything if they would know that their confessions are not protected by secrecy. Bitter Winter has also argued that confession should be protected for all religions, including those where it is rendered to more than one religious ministers, or the ministers share its content with others in the same religious organization. The Catholic model where one penitent confesses to one priest is not the only model of confession, and the law cannot discriminate between different religions.
We are thus happy that these principles have been uphold by the Supreme Court of Arizona, in a decision rendered on April 7 but made public only on April 11. The case concerned the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), popularly known as the Mormon Church. A man called Paul Adams sexually abused his older daughter for seven years between 2010 and 2017. He also abused her infant sister. At the beginning of his abuses, he confessed his crimes to a LDS Bishop. A disciplinary hearing was held, with the participation of various LDS officers, and Adams was excommunicated in 2013.
The LDS Church did not inform the police of Adams’ statements, which had clearly occurred in a confessional context. Later, Adams boasted of his abuses on social media. He was arrested in 2017, and confessed his crimes to the police.
The question before the Supreme Court was not whether Adams was guilty, which had been clearly established, but whether the LDS Church, which had been sued by Adams’ children, had a responsibility for not having reported him to the authorities. Cochise County Superior Court Judge Laura Cardinal had ruled on August 8, 2022, that even if Arizona law protects the secret of the confession. Adams had waived his right to keep his confession secret when he had publicly boasted of his crimes. The LDS Church was thus responsible for not having reported him. The church appealed.
On December 15, 2022, the Arizona Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the LDS Church, correctly stating that laws on the secret of confession do not protect the penitents only but also the clergy who heard their confessions. Adams might have waived his rights but the LDS bishops and other officials had not, and their actions or lack of action remained protected by the principle that clergy cannot be compelled to disclose what they learned in confession. The Court of Appeal also confirmed that how many officials and clergy in the LDS Church heard or knew of the confession is irrelevant.
The Supreme Court of Arizona has now uphold the verdict of the Court of Appeal, although attorneys representing the victims of Adams plan to file an unusual motion asking the court to reconsider its verdict.
Sexual abuse of children is a horrible crime, and it is understandable that some believe that even the principle of the secret of confession should suffer an exception in these horrific cases. However, for many religions the secret of the confession rests on a divine mandate and is at the core of their faith. Once a breach is opened on its protection in cases of child sexual abuse, other breaches will follow. What if penitents confess that they are preparing a terrorist attack, or identify themselves as serial killers? In the end, the secret of the confession will simply disappear, and with it one of the walls protecting what is most sacrosanct for religions from the invasiveness of the states.