Is the identity of the penitent kept in confidence?

We have a classical Lutheran Academy connected to our church. One of the practices that we have is on Thursday afternoons, we offer private confession and absolution to the students and faculty. Been doing it for years, but I’ll tell you about that another time.

This morning I had a first for me. I had a teacher come up and ask me if a student had gone to confession. The student had left the room and come back fairly quickly, and she is concerned that he was doing something other than what he said he was doing (the student is in 1st grade). I have always held that not only the content of the confession, but also the identity of penitents are held in confidence. However, this is a tricky two kingdom matter, as I see it. Where are my obligations as a pastor and as a de factor member of the faculty? Am I free to tell a teacher that a student has gone to confession in a school setting?


7 thoughts on “Is the identity of the penitent kept in confidence?

  1. It is individual confession and absolution. The confession is what is secret. This is not a covert Sacrament. You opening speak in the church meetings etc of who attends Holy Communion. Is there a difference in the forgiveness? No.

    I see the greater issue as the teacher’s supervision practices. If hallway turns are an issue something needs to be worked out with another teacher.

  2. Fascinating issue/question. I would say that given the method of private confession in early Lutheranism, I can see nothing wrong in informing the person as to the whereabouts of the student. We know from many paintings and woodcuts that private confession was conducted quite openly near the altar and anyone could see who was making private confession to the pastor, then, in more recent times, consider how Roman Catholics would line up to enter the confessional booth, no secret identities of those going to confession there.

    I hope that helps your thinking on this. I think Lynn is spot-on.

  3. Addendum to my last email. I do not mean that a pastor should be advertising who is attending. I think there are times when there may be a legitimate reason to reveal that someone received this Sacrament. Revealing attendance is not part of your ordination vows.

  4. I do understand all of this. I guess my question is whether I am the one who should be doing the revealing, or whether this is something that the situation dictates? We keep communion records, but we don’t keep private confession records. Why?

  5. I think that it is best to as much as possible to forget everything that was told to you in confession and by whom: in such way does Christ forgive our sin, blotted out and forgotten.

  6. I think this is a touchy subject. If the penitent feels that their privacy and trust has been betrayed, then they will not return for confession/absolution.

    Once trust is broken between a pastor and a parishioner, it is difficult to rebuild. To betray a 1st grade student, could easily sow the seeds that lead them away from the church. It could hurt them greatly to not be able to trust the pastor.

    On another vein, I think pastors need to apply some wisdom about anything that is said to them outside of confession. I am struggling with a mental illness and even though I have stressed my need for privacy half a dozen times. This pastor keeps blabbing my business to people I do not even know. Is this necessary? NO.

    I have been unable to attend church because of my illness. This pastor has been pressuring me to attend church and gave me the first and last name of another parishioner who suffers from a mental illness. He said this parishioner slips in the back door and leaves immediately after the service. He expects me to do same. It does not even seem to dawn on him that his broadcasting her name and condition might have something to do with her not socializing with anyone. Once you label someone with mental illness, you negate them in the eyes of too many.

    There are other things I can add to how my situation was being mishandled by the pastor. I finally hit the last straw at the end of November and ended up cutting off all contact with the church. I cannot trust them and I am too sick to deal with their nonsense, to teach them the basics, and to stand up for myself among suspicious eyes in the congregation.

    I guess, what I’m trying to say is that pastors need to beware of gossiping about their parishioners and tying to meddle in things that they have no expertise in. I left the church for my health’s sake. Will any pastor recognize how serious gossip and breaking trust is?

  7. While the vow says, “Never reveal sins confessed to you”, the very fact that they are confessing indicates that there were sins to be confessed (not really a surprise, since we are all sinful, but still not a matter for public discussion.)

    If, as Luther says, the reason not to reveal a confession – even in the case of a mother murdering her child – is because Christ heard and absolved, not me, then Christ saw the confession as well, not me, and so I really can’t comment. The correct answer to the teacher is :

    I will talk to him, and take care of it.

    If he confessed, then all is well, just bring him down and give him a piece of candy or something. If he dawdles coming from, going to, maybe mention to him that he might want to hurry.

    If he lied, then address it between you and him. His sin in this case is not primarily against the teacher, although it is that. It is lying about the use of God’s word. (2nd commandment) Explain to him his sin, if he confesses, absolve him, and remind him that he does owe the teacher an apology for lying to her (4th commandment). Offer to go with him.

    Since Private absolution is so little used in the church today, we must jealously guard the integrity of it far beyond what is simply required by the law. If the people have ANY questions about the integrity of the confessional seal, they will not use it, and will lose a beautiful proclamation of the Gospel. Better to err on the side of the Gospel than to make exceptions based on the law.

    Anonymous : I pray you find a church with a faithful pastor.

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