“I am merely the interpreter”

Must a priest who learns of crimes in confession alert authorities? Cologne Auxiliary Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp says no, it would violate religious freedom. Because with the confession it does not concern worldly justice.

Interviewer: The Vatican's Penitential Court stressed in an official note: No government or law can desecrate the sacrament of confession. The Vatican has thus once again reaffirmed the inviolability of the seal of confession. What do you think about it?

Dominikus Schwaderlapp (Auxiliary Bishop of Cologne ): It is right, good and necessary to re-emphasize the secrecy of confession. Confession is not just any conversation between a pastor and someone who has a concern. It is about the immediate relationship with God, about reconciliation with Jesus Christ. This is something very personal, where God himself acts and the priest only lends Christ his voice. That is why the priest has a very subordinate task here. It's all about this direct relationship, and no other person has anything to do with it.

Interviewer: But shouldn't there be some kind of special rules when someone reports a crime – such as sexual abuse or murder?

Schwaderlapp: No, this is about the reconciliation of a person – who sees that he has done something wrong – with God. He repents, he wants to improve and he wants to tell this to God. And so that this can be heard by people, there is the sacrament of penance, in which Christ lends his voice, so to speak, to a person, a priest, so that he can act through him. It is about what the apostle Paul already said: Be reconciled to God.

This is not about coming to terms with crimes. This is not about a worldly justice and jurisdiction. This is about God's justice and mercy. This is a completely different dimension. If the secrecy of confession were not there, then one would have a hard time or not go to this sacrament at all. And confession can also be the way for further steps, which later also lead to a public reappraisal. But again: These are completely different steps.

Interviewer: On the part of the Vatican court it is said that the confessional secrecy is not comparable with the professional secrecy of doctors or lawyers, for example. Why not?

Schwaderlapp: The professional secret is yes protection of a professional group, so that personality rights are preserved and these do not penetrate into the public. Confession is not about personal rights. This is about religion. It is an act of religious freedom that is respected here. It is my freedom to go to confession as a Christian and my freedom as a priest to believe that in this sacrament Jesus Christ himself is at work and I am not authorized to say that to another. This is not about a human, but about a divine realm – about religious freedom. And this is now a high good, which is respected or should be respected in all free democracies of this world.

Interviewer: The Court's note says: "Any political or legal initiative against the inviolability of the seal of confession would be a violation of religious freedom as well as of the confessor's freedom of conscience. Can you explain this loyalty to the confessor?

Schwaderlapp: Again, it is not about my relationship as a priest to the confessor. The confessor has a relationship with God. I am only an interpreter. This is also the end of my role, my task. It is a matter of loyalty to God.

The interview was conducted by Carsten Dopp.

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