Q: Does the Catholic Church have a list of offenses that result in some form of canonical process and/or penalty?
A: Yes, the Church has laws that address crimes known in canon law as “delicts.” The list that is applicable today is found in the Code of Canon Law. Violation of the seal of confession is explicitly listed as a delict in Canon 1388
Q: Why do we take the seal of confession so seriously?
A: The Catholic Church takes the obligation to maintain the seal of confession so seriously that it is a crime in canon law to violate it. When a penitent approaches a priest for the sacrament of penance and confesses his or her sins, a sacred trust is established. For the sake of the integrity of the sacrament, what is confessed is held in the highest confidence. Every priest has a most serious obligation to maintain absolute confidentiality regarding what is confessed to him in the sacrament of penance. This absolute confidentiality is known as the “seal of confession” and it is sacred and unbreakable. The seal guarantees that whatever is shared between priest and penitent in the sacrament will forever remain confidential. Violating the seal of the confessional for any reason would irreparably damage any confidence the faithful have in their priests or in this sacrament.
Q: How are penalties for these offenses determined?
A: Penalties for delicts can be either automatic or imposed. Automatic penalties are those determined by the law itself once an offense has been proven. Imposed penalties are those that are placed on the offender when a delict is determined to have been committed upon the conclusion of a canonical process. Canon law specifies the appropriate penalties in some cases and advises about them in others.
Q: Who makes the determination that an offense has been committed and how is that done?
A: The Code of Canon Law establishes various procedures that are to be used when it is alleged that a delict has been committed. In some instances, the deliberations and procedures take place entirely on the local, diocesan level. In other cases, where the Church has determined that the subject matter is more serious, only the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in Rome, can decide how to handle the case.
Q: What does canon law require a bishop to do when he receives an
accusation that an offense may have occurred?
A: The Code of Canon Law stipulates that the first steps after receipt of an accusation of the commission of an ecclesiastical (Church) crime are taken by the local bishop. An accusation that is determined to have a semblance of truth and not be manifestly false or frivolous undergoes what is referred to as a preliminary investigation. During the preliminary investigation, the accused enjoys the presumption of innocence and his good name must not be illegitimately harmed.
Q: Was Fr. Verhasselt made aware of the initial accusation earlier in
A: The first priority in an investigation like this was to determine whether or not the accusation had semblance of truth or was determined to be false. Fr. Verhasselt was made aware of the accusation after a preliminary investigation determined that the initial accusation had a semblance of truth.
Q: Is the bishop always required to report a case of violation of the confessional seal to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?
A: Yes, this is the general rule. The exception, as noted above, would be when the accusation is determined to be manifestly false. In other words, if there is any semblance of truth at all to the accusation, the bishop seeks the intervention of the CDF.
Q: How did the preliminary investigation into the accusation take
A: The initial accusation was received by Bishop J. Sklba, and Bishop William P. Callahan, the diocesan administrator at the time, appointed an investigator. In this case the investigator was chosen from outside the archdiocese to avoid any question of impartiality. The investigator had the obligation and authority to collect the facts and circumstances surrounding the accusation. (The preliminary investigation itself does not result in a definitive finding. Its purpose is to determine if the accusation presented has any semblance of truth or is clearly false.) In Fr. Verhasselt’s case, Archbishop Listecki, after receiving the results of the investigation, determined that the case was to be submitted to the CDF.
Q: What happens after the bishop reports the results of the preliminary
investigation to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?
A: The Congregation reviews the material and makes a decision on what the next steps might be. The decision is based on the material gathered during the investigation and on the observations and recommendations of the bishop regarding the accusation and what might be a suitable way to address it. The next steps could include several options depending on what materials the Congregation received. Among them, the Congregation could authorize the bishop to hold a trial locally or to address the accusation through an administrative penal process. It could also hold a trial at its office in Rome. It might also happen that more information is needed before a decision can be made. This would require the bishop to gather the information and forward it. The Congregation could also confirm, if the facts and circumstances warranted it, that there is not sufficient evidence of the commission of an ecclesiastical crime. In Fr. Verhasselt’s case, the CDF authorized the administrative penal process.
Q: Is a priest typically still in ministry while all of this is being
A: No. A bishop may at any time withdraw a cleric from active ministry pending the outcome of an investigation of the accusation. At the same time, it must be emphasized again that the cleric enjoys the presumption of innocence. This should be made clear by the diocese to the public. If the accusation is unfounded, the bishop must strive to repair any illegitimate damage to the good reputation of the priest.
Q: Why was Father Verhasselt named and why was his name released to the media?
A: Archbishop Listecki initially wrote to parishioners about the accusation and the process to be used moving forward. This was done in an effort to keep parishioners informed with clear and candid information. Our experience has been that when such communication occurs, it typically becomes publicly available to the media. The archdiocese is then obligated to respond to media inquires. No media release was sent to media outlets. The archdiocese released a statement to the media after inquiries from reporters were received.
Q: Why was more not done to protect Father Verhasselt’s good name? (Canon 1717)
A: Because the law required that Father Verhasselt step away from his assignment during this process, the archdiocese believed sharing the information about the accusation was the best way of upholding his reputation. In light of ongoing publicity about sexual abuse of minors, if a pastor were to step away from the parish, people might question whether there was an accusation of sexual abuse of a minor. This would be more damaging to Father Verhasselt’s reputation than sharing the accusation regarding the seal of confession.
Q. Did Fr. Verhasselt have the “right of defense” and representation?
A: Yes. Archbishop Listecki made certain that Fr. Verhasselt had representation of a canon lawyer during the administrative penal process. This canon lawyer helped Fr. Verhasselt understand the process while protecting his rights. He assisted Fr. Verhasselt in presenting his defense and prepared a written brief.
Q: Are the names of the accusers revealed?
A: The norms for the investigation provided by the CDF direct that the names of
the accusers not be revealed.
Q: Does the Church conduct the legal proceedings mentioned above in secret?
A: Church law does require that a process such as the administrative penal process, that leads to the imposition of penalties, be dealt with confidentially. This is meant to protect the accused, the accusers, the witnesses, and the integrity of the Church process. For instance, general members of the public are not admitted to the proceedings and all involved in the process are advised to maintain confidentiality.
Q: Why was there limited information shared with parishioners about the initial accusation against Father Verhasselt?
A: After notifying Fr. Verhasselt of the initial accusation, communication with parishioners began, with information being shared in April, 2010. In addition, Deacon David Zimprich was present at the parish for several days to talk with and listen to parishioners. Deacon Zimprich continued to follow up on calls and letters received by parishioners who asked questions or expressed concerns about this process. Archbishop Listecki also wrote to parishioners with updates on the status of the case. The archdiocese was not able to provide answers to every question being asked because of the confidentiality involved in such a case.
Q: Why did the process take so long?
A: The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith examined all the information submitted during the preliminary investigation and took the time necessary to provide the archbishop with the next steps that were to be taken. The Congregation receives communication and requests from all over the world and as much as we would have liked a quick response, we understand that this type of review takes time. During the investigation of the initial accusation, a second accusation came to light. In addition, in the administrative penal process it is not required that the accused present witnesses. However, Archbishop Listecki, in order to protect Fr. Verhasselt’s right of defense, allowed him to submit the names of witnesses. These witnesses were deposed in June of 2011. The process took as long as was needed in order to ensure a thorough and just outcome.
Q: Was Father Verhasselt deposed as part of the process?
A: In order to protect Fr. Verhasselt’s right of defense, he was deposed twice. In both instances, his canonical advocate was present.
Q: Fr. Verhasselt was found guilty of an indirect violation of the seal of confession. What is the difference between an indirect and a direct violation?
A: A direct violation is one in which both the sin and the penitent are essentially identified by the confessor (priest). An indirect violation is one in which a specific person’s sin, but not necessarily the identity of the penitent, is revealed by the confessor (priest).