Leading Article: Breaking the code of absolute silence

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The Independent Online
TO MANY Protestants or non-believers, confession is a perplexing aspect of Roman Catholic practice. On the one hand, it is a valuable form of therapy, invented long before the expensive lay version rooted in rival theories of psychology. On the other, it seems to place enormous power in the hands of priests at the receiving end.

Doctrinally, they are merely intermediaries between God and penitent sinners. Yet their power to grant absolution is an awesome responsibility. Absolution can also be denied; where a serious crime has been committed, the priest is likely to say it can be granted only after the guilty party has turned him or herself in to the police.

Absolute confidentiality is at the heart of the relationship between the priest and those who confess. Canon law states that '. . . it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or any other manner or for any reason'. So Father Paolo Turturro, a Sicilian priest working in a Mafia-infested neighbourhood, did wrong to tell parishioners in a Christmas sermon that a 22-year-old man had confessed to him that he had taken part in five Mafia ambushes, including the killing in May 1992 of the anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone.

Even though Father Turturro revealed no more specific details, he could be suspended, referred to the 'Sacred Penitentiary' department of the Vatican and, notionally, excommunicated for such a betrayal. The Vatican will have to decide how to deal with a priest who in other respects has shown a high degree of courage and civic responsibility in combating the Mafia.

Priests are not alone in receiving incriminating information: solicitors and doctors can find themselves in the same position. In both cases, the duty of confidentiality is notionally absolute. In practice, however, it can be superseded by a wider duty to those who might be at risk if the information is not passed on.

A solicitor could be absolved from confidentiality, for example, on learning that a client intended to commit a crime; or that a snatched child was at risk as a result of living rough. Doctors, whose code allows the disclosure of information that would serve the public good, are constantly faced by dilemmas of conscience.

For example, should an obvious case of attempted murder be reported? Or a bus driver who has had an epileptic fit? Any breach of confidence may have to be justified to their own General Medical Council, among other bodies. For Catholic priests, no such dilemmas exist. The rule is to be silent, and Father Turturro has unwisely, if bravely, broken it.