OTTAWA (CCN) — The seal of the confessional for Roman Catholic priests operating as military chaplains remains inviolate, says Canada’s Chaplain General.
For Catholic priests, according to Canon 983.1, “It’s a crime for a confessor to betray a penitent in any manner or for any reason,” said Brigadier-General Guy Chapdelaine.
“When it’s a confession, it’s different from a person coming to speak to me,” the Chaplain General said. “We have to make sure that it’s clear; it’s a confession.”
Chapdelaine, the first Roman Catholic priest to serve as Chaplain General, issued a 2015 directive in response to “Operation Honour” meant to deal with sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces
The directive outlined three circumstances under which confidentiality “is not applicable”: when a person poses a threat to others or to him or herself; when abuse of a minor is involved; or when ordered by a court of law.
The directive applies to Catholic priests when they are counselling outside of the confessional, Chapdelaine said. “It has to be clear the person wants to confess. When the situation is clear that it’s a confession, I have the responsibility to protect the seal of confession.”
The two-year-old directive came into the news recently after a CBC news report on federal documents revealed some chaplains are concerned about “potentially breaching confidentiality of those receiving spiritual care.”
The report also coincided with news from Australia that its Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has recommended making it a criminal offence to fail to report child sexual abuse with no exemption for the confessional.
Chapdelaine said he could not comment about the news in Australia, but in Canada he does not see any “sign of change,” when it comes to the seal of the confessional.
“It’s a crime for us to (violate) it,” he said. “It’s excommunication from the church. I would put the emphasis on the freedom of religion and on the specific situation.”
Chapdelaine said he had read about the Supreme Court of Canada upholding solicitor-client privilege.
“I’m confident it will be respectful of privileged religious communication between a minister and a military person who comes to see him or her.”
“For Catholic priests, confession is very, very specific,” the Chaplain General said. “It’s not something I see often. I have a lot of communication with people, but will not be under the seal of confession.”
“When I was deployed, on my daily ministry, it’s very exceptional that people will come to see me and say this is a confession, and I would like to speak about a specific situation,” he said. “It happens of course, but it’s not something common.”
Despite reports about concerns, Chapdelaine said he has never seen a court in Canada ask a chaplain to violate confidentiality, whether inside or outside the confessional.
The Chaplain General said the CBC article made it look “like we don’t respect confidentiality.”
“We take seriously confidentiality and the trust of the person coming to us,” he said. “The three situations that I gave you are very unusual.”
“I don’t see these situations happen often,” he said. “We need compassion, we need to build trust with the person and they know of course we have some obligations.”
“If they tell us they will commit suicide in the next couple of hours, we have a responsibility to do something,” he said. The first thing is to “convince them to report themselves,” or to seek further help.
We don’t want the members of the Canadian Armed Forces not sure about confidentiality,” he said.
“We have some areas where we have no choice; they are very specific and unusual.”
For Col. Martine Belanger, a lay Catholic chaplain, the directive is clear and has not posed a problem for her or for other chaplains. “Personally for me, I am not aware of any chaplains or colleagues that don’t feel comfortable with this,” she said, noting all the chaplains were consulted in the issuing of the directive.
“We have a unique role,” she said. “It is to journey with the person, when a person is coming to seek our advice, to seek our support.”
On the issue of sexual misconduct, unless it involves a minor, there is no duty to report, she said.
“We provide direct pastoral support to the affected members,” she said. “We are not judging, we are not forcing the person, we are really there to support, to journey. We offer that space and that time,” she said.
The chaplain’s role is to provide “a ministry of presence,” she said. “When we are in the counselling session, it is the human being in front of us, whatever the person, the rank.”
The chaplains will encourage people to seek further help and make them aware of help available, she said.
Depending on the issue, “we will inform” the person of the extent of confidentiality, she said. “We need to have this clear conversation, clear boundaries,” she said.
“Usually, very often, chaplains are the first line of intervention,” she said. “People will come to us, in crisis, to vent, they really need to have a first ear.”
From there they may be referred to a support group, or other sources of help and support, she said.