Taking the Seal of Confession seriously. To go to jail or not; that is the question.


There are many martyr priests, such as Saint John of Nepomuk, who have been put to death because they would not reveal what was said to them in the confessional. It’s not pretty:


Sometimes Confessionals are bugged, as certain FBI totally malicious idiots had done with the confessionals in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, continuing the practice even after being reprimanded and being caught again. That is, of course, an offence against the free exercise of religion guaranteed in the Constitution. But what do some Feds care about the Constitution? I’m guessing that the Confessionals at Saint Pat’s are now swept for bugs on a regular basis. Then there is the chief liaison between Italy and the Holy See, a military attorney, who wanted to establish me in a parish in southern Italy and, as he admitted, bug the confessional if he got permission from the even higher-ups to do so. Um… No! Then there are the ecclesiastical idiots who bugged the confessional of the great Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. He was none too happy, indicating the silence that had to prevail:


When priests themselves violate the Seal of Confession a special kind of justice takes place, I reckon, whereby all the sins of the penitent are now attributed to the priest himself, who will be responsible for those sins at his last judgment. Besides that, already on this earth, he stands automatically excommunicated from the Church, carrying this curse with him until he repents, but even then there is every chance that he will never be readmitted to sacramental duties, but will likely be dismissed from the clerical state, “laicized” so so speak (although he remains a priest forever).

What if I were to sit on a jury for a capital crime? What if I know about the case by way of the Confessional? What if I know that the father, who is dying of cancer, takes the fall for his son who is the actual murderer? Happens all the time. Do I act on my knowledge I came about by way of the confessional?

Diversely, do I ever opt for the ol’ jury nullification? Or if ever the defendant or plaintiff would insist that they don’t know me and never came to confession to me, that wouldn’t matter, for the Seal of Confession is to be respected by the priest regardless of what the penitent says, and besides, the penitent can be mistaken, for I hear confessions all over the place, also behind a screen, and the penitents don’t even know that they went to confession to me.

Or could I ever just go ahead and poison the entire jury pool at the time of jury selection and say that I know the defendant because he came to me in Confession? Talk about a mistrial! Do I decline to be on a jury just for one case but not for another, and what does that say? Another mistrial. And what if I don’t recognize anyone among the defendants or plaintiffs at the time of the selection, but recognize the case as the unrepeatable details start to be revealed in court, and then I know I didn’t recognize this fellow because he’s been coming to confession for years but only behind the screen that we Catholic priests also use during Confession? Do I back out then, forever poisoning any future jury?

And of course, the people who can come to confession to me can be from other parishes, other counties, other states, other nations. More than that, they don’t have to be Catholics to come to Confession, but can do so as catechumens, getting ready for a Confession they will make latter. This applies to all, no matter what, even if they don’t know they may well be utterly impressed by what they experience and then later become catechumens. Also, there need not be an absolution for the seal is always present regardless; it may take many times before the penitent, even Catholic, is willing to be absolved. Non-Catholics of all kinds, including non-Christians may well want to go to a priest who is bound by such a seal, confessing as best they can, seeking a blessing, perhaps preparing in this way for an actual sacramental confession in the future so that this is actually part of that later confession. That is the way I would treat it, as that can be the way it is. Etc. Such matters of conscience are not matters for a court to decide.

Some say that I am NOT a witness, am not testifying, and so can sit on a jury to judge what was just confessed to me even moments before the jury selection, simply putting it in my mind that what I did judge in the confessional is not necessarily what I will judge in the court room. A lawyer actually said that to me, pretty much yelling at me with incredulity at how stupid I was. But, as another priest says: B as in B, S as in S.

Here’s the deal: I can certainly be a witness to the confession of a crime spoken only to me under what is effectively an oath before God in the most intimate and prayerful and reflective and voluntary and sincere of circumstances. THEREFORE: I would absolutely be ripped from the jury so as to be a witness in court by the prosecutor if this were known to be a fact.

The law in North Carolina has the pretense of trumping the Constitution, saying that the State has compelling interest over against the First Amendment to the Constitution so as to demand that a witness testify in court, particularly for a capital crime.

Do you think the defense attorney wants me on the jury? No? However merciful I might be in the Confessional, I will surely take the juror’s oath seriously lest I myself go to hell, won’t I? I’m not going to lie as a priest, am I? In the eyes of the court, should a deciding witness in a case secretly hide himself in the jury box? No? Can I speak up? No? Can I really expect to have a poker face in front of my fellow jurors when they know I may well know much more about the facts, whether I do or not, and ignore me or defer to me? No? Actually, no. My head is going to explode. I can’t ever be on a jury. This isn’t hard.

This isn’t my role in society. The Constitution, which actually trumps State law, backs me up, but this is clearly something that is now being pushed, and hard. Why?

Why would a judge, knowing all this, call me a third time to jury duty on Criminal High Court after giving me a by the first two times? The clerk of court said that this going to a third time has never happened for this reason (he has never seen this reason, ever). I don’t know; maybe the judge is just seeing if I’ll be consistent, which is laudable. If I’m not he may be obliged to judge the other trials I missed to be mistrials.

But since I am consistent in not sitting on any trial, and say hypothetically that the judge doesn’t give me a by, and possibly sends me off to jail for criminal contempt of court for refusing to sit on a jury, and this possibly with a fine, possibly with loss of any number of societal privileges… in that case, what’s actually going on?

Worst case scenario: whatever about the other penalties, if he does hold me to be in felonious criminal contempt of court, but does not take away my right to sit on a jury, and I find another summons to jury duty in my mail box after doing any jail time, and then immediately find myself back in jail, and therefore have to be reassigned as a priest out of this court district, how long do you think it will be before the other judges do the same and actually exile this citizen out of the state of North Carolina? Would this kind of persecution smashing the right to free exercise of religion be fair? No? Let’s see what happens. I should be finding out the judgment of the judge, or be called to a special hearing, within the next couple of weeks.

A good case scenario: no jail time, no loss of privileges, a one dollar fine and an encouragement from the judge to appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court so as to have the law refined. As it is the law as it presently stands actually baits judges into forcing an appeal if they think that the viability of the court is being injured. The way the law is written is that it seems the viability of the court would be injured, you know, the part about the State not being able to decide between a minister and a member and so all decisions in such matters would apply to all (which is simply not the case). This would be a hassle, but it is what it is.

The best case scenario for me anyway would be that I were to be permanently excused, the judge hoping that the ruling would not be used as an excuse maliciously to get out of jury duty by anyone and everyone who doesn’t want to bother.

Or, am I missing something with “IN RE WILLIAMS” 1967?


Filed under Confession, Priesthood, Vocations

10 responses to “Taking the Seal of Confession seriously. To go to jail or not; that is the question.

  1. Dear Father Byers,

    This is somewhat tangential to the actual topic of your post, but have you read “The Origins of Reasonable Doubt” by James Q. Whitman? An attorney friend ran across this when I had sent out a query to my attorney friends about the Christian origins of US law. (This, a consequence of a debate I was having with an Imam, but that is another matter.)

    If you have not read it, I recommend it to you. It is available on-line (i.e. as a free read) as well, but without footnotes.


  2. monicaharris58


  3. Father George David Byers


  4. Father George David Byers

    Felony contempt?

  5. Off topic…but maybe not, Father George David, since you have a number of pictures of seals.

    Here’s one little seal that ingenuously escaped the orcas who were hunting it:

  6. Dear Fr. Byers,

    If the “link?” remark was directed to me, here is a link to an abstract,
    from which one may download a PDF file of the whole text (without footnotes):


    Of course, the actual book can be purchased from Amazon:



  7. Nan

    I didn’t think they’d do anything but invite you to the party again so you could once again decline their invitation. You won’t get a blanket exemption.

  8. Father George David Byers

    @ bonomo — I guess I miss the point with that summary. Is it not true that unreasonable doubt is to be dismissed as… unreasonable, and if you cannot be convinced that guilt is established beyond a reasonable doubt, one cannot proceed with a guilty verdict anymore than one can shoot at a scarecrow that kinda looks like a man and could be a man. If one were to pull the trigger one would be guilty morally of attempted murder whether or not it was a man or a scarecrow.

    Having said that, none of that makes a difference with my participating in a jury. I have no doubt whatsoever that I cannot do such a thing. I have a doubt as to whether I know the circumstances of any particular plaintiff/defendant. I could know them all or none of them or some of them. I cannot differentiate. Even if the judge says the rest of the jury is to disregard any differentiation from me and that I am to sit on the jury, that doesn’t mean that the jury isn’t utterly poisoned. Also, as I say, I may not have even that luxury to differentiate before a trial (though I cannot betray a penitent in any way regardless of any trial), but may only come to know that a penitent is on trial before me when all the unrepeatable details come out, it being that he always went to confession or sought advice behind the screen.

    I have no doubt about that whatsoever.

  9. @Fr. Byers: As I noted, my post is somewhat tangential to your actual question. I passed on the information as I thought you might find it of general interest. The thesis of the book is that the “reasonable doubt” standard was established to avoid putting jurors in a bad (or, at least, awkward) moral situation by demanding *certainty.* This is quite obvious to anyone who has any concept of moral theology. Apparently, it is a puzzlement to our post-Christian legal system.

  10. Monica Harris

    Father Byers: Is there anything that we non-legal people can do to help your cause? I immediately thought of your ( really, our) cause when you posted the prior one about China–but not sure what we can do?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.