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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: Having read your column for many years, I know you have friends in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, so perhaps you could answer this question for me. I am a 77-year-old Baptist and therefore not sure of all Catholic beliefs.

I have queried many Catholics and priests, and no one can give me a straight answer to this question.

I called a local Catholic church one day and posed this question: "When one of your parishioners makes a confession to you, you never reveal what was said in that confessional, do you?" The priest said, "Absolutely not."

I asked: "What would you do in this case? John Jones is scheduled to die in the electric chair within a week for a murder he swears he never committed. The previous Sunday, one of your parishioners says in his confession to you that HE committed the murder. He gives you every detail, and you are convinced that he is the real murderer. Would you turn him in to the police and violate the sanctity of the confessional, or would you not turn him in and let an innocent man go to the electric chair?"

His answer was, "I would try to persuade my parishioner to confess to the police."

I said: "Supposing persuasion doesn't work? In other words, your parishioner wants to get the murder off his conscience, but he doesn't want to confess to the police and go to the chair."

The priest said, "Well, the best I can tell you is that I would use persuasion." Then he hung up on me.

My question is this, Abby: What is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church on this matter? Does the church violate the sanctity of the confessional, or would it let an innocent man die for a murder he didn't commit? You may use my name. -- JOHN W. LETZGUS, PALM BAY, FLA.

DEAR MR. LETZGUS: Your question goes beyond my area of expertise, so I contacted the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and received the following statement from Cardinal Roger Mahoney, archbishop of Los Angeles:

"Your Baptist correspondent poses a thorny hypothetical moral dilemma, one that every priest hopes he never faces!

"Canon law of the Catholic Church absolutely forbids priests from disclosing information gained during the celebration of the sacrament of penance that might link a penitent with a grave sin. The reason for this is simple: People's confidence in and recourse to the sacrament of penance is based upon the inviolability of the 'seal of confession.'

"If people were to lose that confidence and stop utilizing the sacrament, then the will of Jesus Christ in giving his church this means of forgiveness and grace would have been thwarted. Hence, even if it were to result in death for himself or another innocent person, the priest may not identify the real murderer.

"The confessor could refuse to absolve the real murderer, but the contents of his confession must remain sealed. The good of protecting the sacrament's integrity for millions of potential penitents outweighs even the evil of the state executing an innocent person.

"Of course, the Catholic bishops of the United States, as well as Pope John Paul II, oppose almost all instances of capital punishment, but that is a separate discussion."

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