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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: You printed a query from a Baptist regarding the secrecy of the Catholic confessional. The writer asked whether a priest would disclose the confession of a murder if disclosure would save the life of a wrongly convicted person who is to be executed for a crime he did not commit.

The response from Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles stated that the priest could refuse absolution to the real murderer if he refused to turn himself in to the police, but under no circumstances could the priest break the secrecy seal of the confessional, even to save the life of the innocent person who is about to be executed.

As an ethics teacher in a Catholic college, I find this answer unsatisfactory. When I discuss such dilemmas with students, I encourage them to find a solution that will respect the moral demands of both horns of the dilemma. In this case, the priest should try to save the life of the innocent convict while also respecting the confidentiality of his penitent.

For example, the priest could document the details provided by the real murderer and take the statement to appropriate authorities, while keeping the identity of the murderer anonymous. Although the priest's evidence is hearsay and may not be admissible in a trial court, his willingness to swear that he has heard the confession of the murderer and is convinced it is authentic should at least lead authorities to reconsider the planned execution.

Cardinal Mahoney's argument for absolute secrecy on grounds that penitents could stop using the sacrament if they were not guaranteed secrecy is parallel to arguments made by psychiatrists in the Tarasoff case, where a patient had told his psychiatrist he planned to kill his girlfriend and then carried out the threat. On appeal, the California Supreme Court rejected the psychiatrist's argument supporting absolute confidentiality, saying that a psychiatrist had a duty to warn or protect an identifiable potential victim, and enunciated the principle now universally accepted by psychiatrists, therapists and social workers.

Confidentiality is limited by the right of others not to be harmed, and is most strongly limited by the right to life held by innocent persons. -- CAROL A TAUER, ST. PAUL, MINN.

DEAR MS. TAUER: When I printed the question, and then Cardinal Mahoney's response, I had no idea it would generate such a flood of angry letters. Some were from Catholics accusing me of having printed an "anti-Catholic, trick question." However, most were from readers who vigorously disagreed with the church's position on allowing an innocent person to die for a crime he did not commit.

Since I am not of the Catholic faith, I hesitate to criticize church doctrine. However, I think your letter is an important one, and your argument has merit.

DEAR ABBY: I just finished reading about another senseless crime. A high school student fatally gunned down his high school principal and one of his "tormentors." The most troubling part of the tragedy is that the killer's friends knew that he had frequently made death threats. However, they didn't think he would carry it through because it was "just, you know, teen talk."

Anyone who considers this kind of conversation "just talk" is making a terrible mistake by not confiding in someone who can help. I am out of high school only 16 years, but no one in our school ever spoke that way. Is violence the only way people believe they can solve their problems? -- SCARED MOTHER OF TWO

DEAR SCARED MOTHER: Don't be too hard on teen-agers who may not have realized the seriousness of such a threat. However, let me go on record: Death threats and threats of suicide are both serious, and should be reported to a responsible adult. They are indications of serious underlying problems for which professional intervention is essential.

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