What to Do If the Seal of Confession Is Broken

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

Broken seals (Steve Snodgrass, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

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
Apostolic Penitentiary
Palazzo della Cancelleria
Piazza della Cancelleria 1
00186 Roma

If the seal was broken in a public matter:

Cardinal Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, SJ
Congregation/Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith
Piazza del S. Uffizio 11
00193 Roma

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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    1. Directly means the person and the sin quite specifically. Indirectly is when it’s a little too awkward like say a priest says “someone in the school confessed to the graffiti in the school gym.” Or other similar matters. Indirect is also if the next person in line for confession overhears and th e confession and repeats details.

  1. Or you can go to a Missionary of Mercy, they have faculties from the Holy See.
    The Missionaries of Mercy are priests who have been commissioned by the Holy Father to “hear confessions, and preach on behalf of and promote the Sacrament of Reconciliation.” In addition, they have the authority, granted by the Holy Father, to pardon these sins reserved to the Holy See:
    Profaning the Eucharistic species by taking them away or keeping them for a sacrilegious purpose;
    Use of physical force against the Roman Pontiff;
    Absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue;
    A direct violation against the sacramental seal by a confessor.
    The recording by means of a technical device of what the priest or the penitent says in a Sacramental Confession (whether real or simulated), or the divulgation of such a recording through the means of social communication.

    1. Thanks! Do you have the precise document specifying this. Someone else posted similarly in a reply on social media, but I did not see a clear source that specified this.

      Also, as far as I could tell this was only if the seal was broken in a private matter (Apostolic Penitentiary), not in a public manner (DDF).

  2. What do you do if the priest breaks the seal in private (two sinners named, two mortal sins named, and adds that he knows because he hears their confessions), you chastise him and he is remorseful and says he’ll take care of it, you recommend he see a missionary of mercy in the diocese, and you find out two years later he did nothing at all? He claims 👏🏻now that he “really didn’t do that.”

    More than being angry, I am worried for his soul.

    1. Report this to his superior: the bishop for all kinds of priests and also his major superior (likely a provincial) if he is a religious priest.

      Breaking the seal is very serious and should be dealt with when it happens. Not every issue should you go over a priest’s head to the bishop, but on breaking the seal, do so without question.

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