PARIS — The absolute secrecy of confession is central to the Roman Catholic faith. What is said in confession is between a penitent and God, the priest a mediator. Any priest who breaks that seal can face excommunication under church laws that the Vatican places above all others.
But what happens when what is confessed is a violation of the laws of the state?
It is an issue that has vexed attempts to address the sexual abuse cases that have roiled the church in any number of countries, but one that has emerged as especially charged in France, where the state long ago stripped the Catholic Church of its pre-eminence.
A devastating church-ordered report issued in October by an independent commission on sexual abuse inside the French Catholic Church found that the sacrament of confession itself, in rare instances, had been used to cover up abuse cases.
Some victims wishing to report past abuses or expose active abusive priests were told to speak about it during confession, effectively suppressing their revelations and turning the sacrament into a “weapon of silence,” said Laëtitia Atlani-Duault, a member of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, which wrote the report.
“The fact that this information was heard during confession would exempt the church from submitting itself to the laws of the Republic,” she said.
The report recommended that priests who heard of abuse during confession should be required to report evidence to state authorities so that abusers “would no longer feel protected by church leaders,” said Ms. Atlani-Duault, an anthropologist who teaches at IRD-University of Paris and Columbia University.
Even so, the morning after the release of the report, Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, the archbishop of Reims and the president of the Bishops’ Conference of France, reaffirmed the Vatican’s position on the absolute secrecy of confession, declaring church law “superior to the laws of the Republic.”
The comment drew a sharp rebuke from the French government. Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, quickly summoned the archbishop — an act that was laden with symbolism that angered some Catholic officials.
After a meeting at the minister’s office, the archbishop spoke in a statement of “reconciling the nature of confession and the need to protect children” and apologized for his “clumsy wording.”
But he did not retreat from the church’s stance on the secrecy of confession. Mr. Darmanin reiterated the government’s position that priests should report child abuse, although he stopped short of declaring that they were legally bound to do so.
Such disagreements over the secrecy of confession have erupted in a number of countries that went through a reckoning of abuse in their churches, but the debates remain mostly unresolved. Under pressure, the Vatican in recent years has lifted or eased some of its confidentiality policies, but it has remained steadfast on confession.
In Australia, a royal commission recommended in 2017 that priests who hear about sexual abuse in the confessional be required to report it, and several states have passed laws to that effect, but church authorities have refused to comply. In the United States, only a handful of states have denied religious exemptions from mandatory reporting laws.
But the issue has taken on particular resonance in France, which underwent a long and contentious separation of church and state.
“We can tell that the church is not ready to revisit this dogma,” Jean Castex, France’s prime minister, told reporters last month during a visit with Pope Francis at the Vatican, according to French media. “But we must find ways of reconciling it with criminal law and the rights of victims.”
The Rev. Thomas Poussier, a Catholic priest who has written about confession, said he understood why the sacrament had come under suspicion. “It may appear to be a big laundering machine for the souls of predators,” he said.
During confession, priests must urge victims to report the evidence to outside authorities so that the act of confession does not become “the end of the road,” he added.
The estimated number of abuse victims — 200,000 to 300,000 over 70 years — was a projection based on a general population survey, a public call for victim testimony, archival analysis and other sources. The commission interviewed more than 150 victims and received more than 2,200 written accounts.
Ms. Atlani-Duault, the commission member, said the group had not carried out a quantitative analysis that would show how often penitents were steered toward confession when discussing sexual abuse.
Cases of abuse reported during confession appeared rare, said Olivier Savignac, a leader of De la parole aux actes!, an umbrella association of victim groups established after the report to press the church to change. On Friday, France’s bishops recognized that the church bore an “institutional responsibility” for “systemic” abuse, an admission many victims were hoping to hear.
But Mr. Savignac said Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort’s comments pointed to a fundamental problem — that the French Catholic Church, like its counterparts in other countries, could not change independently.
“There can’t be any reforms by the Catholic Church in France, especially on something at the level of the secret of confession, without the authorization of Rome,” Mr. Savignac said. “The bishops are hiding behind Rome because they know full well that Rome’s conservatism acts as a firewall.”
Asked whether the descriptions in the report constituted abuse of sacrament, the Vatican press office said that the information available on the cases was “too little to draw any conclusions.”
The answer is unsatisfying even to some faithful. André Robert, a churchgoer who was found on a recent morning at the Notre-Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse chapel in the Seventh Arrondissement of Paris, said that in a secular state, the laws should apply to all.
“I wouldn’t understand it if the Catholic religion were given a pass,” Mr. Robert said.
The Rev. Cédric Burgun, vice president of the faculty of canon law at the Catholic University of Paris, said that the controversy stemmed partly from a misunderstanding of the sacrament.
In recent decades, he said, “we have transformed confession into a kind of psycho-emotional and spiritual assistance,” as opposed to simply confessing and repenting for one’s sins. Confessionals that physically separate priest from parishioner are rarely used nowadays, he added, and confession often occurs in a face-to-face, office setting.
If a victim mentions abuse during confession, “the priest should be able to tell the person: ‘What you are telling me is not strictly speaking part of confession, so it’s best that we speak about it again in another context to see what needs to be done,’” Father Burgun said.
But some critics say that reasoning ignores how difficult and winding the process can be for those who try to speak out.
Véronique Garnier, 60, who was sexually abused by a priest in her parish when she was 13, said that the church needed to “put victims at the center” but that she “still sees things from the clergy’s point of view.”
She drew a parallel with her experience. After she was abused, she said she turned to the chaplain at her high school, then a sister and finally another priest. All told her to seek help elsewhere. It took her a year between each time to muster the courage to speak out again, she added.
“It’s like someone sees another person drowning and tells them, ‘Wait, I see you are drowning, but I can’t help you, so we’re going to wait for someone else to come by,’” said Ms. Garnier, who wrote a book about her experience and now works on child protection for the Orléans diocese.
Bruno Py, a law professor at the University of Lorraine in eastern France, said that French priests were subjected to the same confidentiality rules that govern doctor-patient or lawyer-client relationships. Professionals who break those rules face up to a year in prison and thousands of euros in fines.
France has over the past years carved out exceptions to those penalties, especially in cases of minor abuse, he noted. French law also makes it mandatory for anyone to report abuse against minors or vulnerable people; those who fail to do so face up to three years in prison and a hefty fine.
But barring rare instances involving imminent or life-threatening danger, Mr. Py said, the law exempts secrecy-bound professionals from such obligations. The legal precedent is to let them choose: They face no penalties if they report abuse, but don’t face any either if they keep the information private.
“Speaking out is allowed; remaining silent is allowed,” he said. “The law leaves individuals with their conscience.”
Léontine Gallois contributed reporting from Paris, and Jason Horowitz from Rome.