Sunday, September 21, 2008

Archpriest George Morelli on Confession, Counselling & Confidentiality

Archpriest George Morelli on Confession, Counselling & Confidentiality

Archpriest George Morelli, a noted Orthodox priest and psychologist, has taken an interest in our discussion on the idea of the confessional "seal" in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Father George kindly sent me the following short article that was intended to be published on Orthodoxy Today. We have it first!

There is much that the Catholic side would absolutely agree with. Most, in fact. But there are some things that I think would be, to say the least, problematic, within the Catholic canonical discipline. Generally speaking, I rather think Orthodox priests are more free to withhold absolution in order to impose conditions on penitents than are Catholic priests.

An interesting article:

The role of clergy, clinicians, and non-professionals in reporting abuse.

What is the role of clinicians, clergy, laity when discovering abuse? Licensed health practitioners (nurses, marriage and family counselors, physicians, psychologists, etc.) are mandated reporters under law. This usually means not only informing appropriate authorities such as the police, but informing and/or intervening with the victim (or potential victim) as well.

A priest may be a mandatory reporter in some jurisdictions. Sacramental confession is excluded. Counseling or communication with a priest in pastoral situations puts the priest (or other clergy) in a very ambiguous and serious position. The priest must act out of love and the purity and clarity of his heart, for both the victim or potential victim and the abuser. If the abuser comes to the priest, the priest must attempt to convince the abuser to accept the fact that they have a serious problem and must seek the help that is needed. This may involve emergency hospitalization or perhaps incarceration. In this case the hospital staff would be mandatory reporters. If a priest is a mandatory reporter, this information must be told to all involved and the laws of the jurisdiction must be followed.

Clergy also have to do all they can to intervene to protect potential victims. This may include referral to appropriate emergency psychological care. In the most serious cases, such as a credible death threat, an immediate call to police and/or emergency services would be warranted.

If a priest is not a licensed mental health practitioner or mandated reporter and situations of abuse (physical, sexual, psychological, or neglect) were disclosed, I would suggest telling the abuser that you will follow up on this like the "hound of heaven." Morally, the priest cannot allow abuse to continue. It may take the priest or someone else to be physically present to guard the abused victim. Whatever it takes to protect and safeguard the victim (or potential victim) must be done.

If the person came "pastorally" to a non-licensed priest and disclosed active abuse, I would recommend telling the abuser, as a last resort, that it has to be reported to protect the victim. Once again, this message has to be made, emphasizing that it is being done out of love and charity. The priest should do everything possible to get the abuser to "sign onto" and "have ownership" of this process. People are more likely to agree to positions they are part of rather than imposed on them by external authority or other factors.

This can be done using the abuser's psychological and spiritual strengths. Appealing to the care or love, the abuser may have had at one time, or is capable of having, and asking them to make a personal decision based on these values. Informing them that priest and God will stand by them during this process is also helpful. Hopefully, all clergy have a list of community resources that handle such situations and appropriate referrals can be made. It is important to treat the abuser with charity, gentleness, and love, but also with a firm hand. The purer the heart of the priest the more clearly he will perceive what actions have to be taken out of love of Christ. Jesus told his apostles: "Peace I leave with you: my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, do I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled: nor let it be afraid" (John 14:27).

An interesting side issue for Eastern Orthodox (and Western Roman) priests is the seal of Confession. Suppose an abuser or victim approaches the priest for the Holy Mystery of Confession. Sometimes it can be anticipated what the person is about to say. Many times others in a parish may know something and word has gotten back to the priest hinting at some serious family trouble. Often a priest can "intuit" the problem through the spiritual gift of discernment.

In such a case, I would inform the 'alleged' abuser that you cannot hear his/her confession at this time. The upcoming discussion will not be a confession (thus under the seal) on a given disclosure. If it can be sensed by the priest that abuse is occurring, a priest-mental health practitioner [like myself] would have to do the same as delineated above except the mandatory reporting law would have to be followed.

While it has never happened that someone slipped by my 'intuitive anticipation' and disclosed abuse in "Confession," I would have to withhold absolution and tell the person they are "without absolution" and "'excommunicated" so to speak, until they report to the authorities. As a follow-up, since the seal of confession still holds, I would try to contact the potential/or actual victim(s) and, without violating the seal of confession, do all I can do to protect and guide him/her/them to safety, etc.

If abuse is anticipated, it is actually easier for a priest-licensed mental health practitioner to treat because the disclosure rules can be cited up front before "session" or a communication begins. I want to be perfectly clear that once confession as our Holy Mystery has begun, no law in the nation can contravene the "Seal" -- even to the imprisonment or death of the priest.

Laity cannot be left out. How many non-ordained or professional people come across potential or actual abuse? They too, when encountering abuse, should be enlivened with the love of Christ in their hearts for both the abuser and abused, as well as all involved in the abuse. There are countless stories in the media about relatives, friends or bystanders who had some knowledge of abuse incidents or the effects of abuse and did nothing. Sometimes this lack of action has resulted in dire consequences to the victims.

With laity and other 'non-professionals' there are issues of uncertainty, clash of interests, and family or friend censure or disapproval. Often these issues produce conflict and resultant stress in the person with the knowledge or suspicion of abuse. In such a cases, talking to a knowledgeable priest, mental health professional, or community agency specializing in abuse would be helpful in guiding them in making the right decision for the good and welfare of all involved. It should be remembered we sin not only by commission, but omission as well.

The Church, which Bishop Hierotheos calls a "hospital," has to be brought to bear on curing the soul and enlightening the nous in the hearts of all, hierarchy, presbyters, deacons as well as the royal priesthood of the faithful. Tradition, scripture in tradition, the teachings of our Church Fathers, the Holy Mysteries, the holy icons, the very architecture of the church building reflecting the Kingdom of God, prayer and fasting: the whole life and mind of the church will be the path of the "light of Christ illumining all."

"Acquire the spirit of peace [in the heart] and a thousand souls will be saved around you." (St. Seraphim of Sarov.)

<>Before moving on to a further discussion of the "Seal of Confession," a word about ordination. One has to distinguish the grace of instrumental episcopacy and priesthood, versus the permission to exercise this grace. As a bishop must be in communion with the Church (other Orthodox Bishops)to exercise his episcopacy, so too, a priest must be under the omophorion of his bishop to functionally perform (exercise) his priesthood. Too lengthy to go into now, but the various canons as listed and interpreted in The Rudder, attest to this. [E.g. neither episcopal or presbyteral "reordinadation" ever take place after reconciliation with the Church]

A couple references on Confession itself. While the Eastern Church may not use the word "Seal of Confession," the rules and penalties for violation of the absolute secrecy of confession are the practically identical as in the Western Church. In Chapter 12: That the Spiritual Father is not to Reveal Sins ( of Part I Instruction to the Spiritual Father) of the Exomologetarion (A Manual for Confession), St Nikodemos the Hagiorite writes: "Nothing else remains after confession, Spiritual Father, except to keep the sins you hear a secret, and to never reveal them, either by word, or by letter, or by bodily gesture, or any other sign, even if you are in danger of death, for that which the wise Sirach says applies to you: "Have you heard a word: Let it die with you." (Sir. 19:10) .....for if you reveal them, firstly, you will be suspended or deposed completely by the Ecclesiastical Canons and according to political laws [of course of the Saint’s day--although this attests to the seriousness of the offense-FrG] you will be thrown in jail for the rest of your life and have your tongue cut out. [Canon 141 (135) of Carthage, PG 138, 424D is cited].

In other words, let me be in silence or let me be in death. No one, no Emperor, court or bishop can abrogate this.


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