In July 2009, Benedictine Father Mark Gruber, a professor at Saint Vincent Archabbey and College in Latrobe, Pa., was suspended from serving as a priest after thousands of pornographic images of young men were found on his computer. 

College officials called in the state police who determined that the images were of adults, not children, therefore, no crime was committed. Investigators also noted that a number of students and faculty had used Father Gruber’s computer. 

The priest remained suspended pending investigation by the Vatican, which can laicize him by papal decree. 

Then, in October 2010, Ann Rogers from The (Pittsburgh) Post-Gazette reported that she finally corroborated information that she had received in December 2009. A former student had claimed responsibility for the pornography, she told Our Sunday Visitor, and revealed to her that he had given sworn statements to the investigators and canon lawyers implicating himself. He also said that he confessed it to Father Gruber. 

“Father Mark has protected the seal of confession admirably even to the point of losing his job, his priestly faculties and allowing his reputation to be maligned,” the young man said in his sworn statements. 

Protecting the seal 

Those records remained sealed until Father Gruber filed a civil suit claiming defamation and other charges against numerous monastery and diocesan people. However, he withdrew the suit after a deposition on Nov. 3. 

His supporters insist that he is protecting the former student who would have been called to testify. But in a prepared statement, Saint Vincent Archabbot Douglas Nowicki said that under oath, “Father Gruber finally had to confront his egregious misconduct.” 

The process to remove him from priestly authority continues, and the veracity of the alleged penitent’s statement will never be proven. By the very nature of the seal of confession, and under Church law, Father Gruber is forbidden to disclose what the young man said. 

“If you went to confession to me and told me that you killed someone, I could not say anything,” Msgr. Michael Servinsky, canon lawyer and vicar general of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pa., told OSV. “You could go to the police and say you did it, but I couldn’t say anything. The seal of confession is more than a professional confidence. You can give your doctor permission to talk about your health care, and then being released, he can give out that information. But a penitent cannot release the confessor. That is part of the nature of the sacrament.” 

Father Gruber’s incident is not the only recent case involving the seal of confession. 

In 2001 Jesuit Father Joseph Towle testified that he had heard another man admit to a 1988 murder in South Bronx, in which two other men were convicted. He said it was not a formal confession, but a “heart-to-heart talk.” As a result of his testimony, an innocent man was released from prison. 

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of New York told that the press that “only Towle knows if he broke the edict” of the seal of confession. 

Last April, Father David Verhasselt of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into an allegation that he violated the seal in an undisclosed incident. In 1983 in the same archdiocese, Father Arthur J. Baertlein, in a sermon, recounted information divulged in a confession. Although no one was named, a parishioner charged that he was referring to her. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith determined that it was an “indirect violation” and Father Baertlein was returned to his parish. 

‘Black hole’ confessional 

In his class on canon law at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Father Louis Vallone tells about a priest who revealed that in his first confession, the penitent committed every sin imaginable — adultery, drugs, you name it. 

Unfortunately, everyone knew that an aunt was his first confession, so he had broken the seal of confession. 

“A priest can use examples from confession in class or in homilies, but he has to be careful that they don’t point to a person,” Father Vallone said. “To say, ‘I once heard’ is generic. But to say ‘my first confession’ is specific.” 

Twenty years ago, Father Vallone himself faced possible charges for contempt of court for not answering questions about a man who came to him for confession and a ride to the police station. 

The man was charged with murdering his wife, and when the trial began, Father Vallone packed a suitcase, ready to go to jail. But the defendant changed his plea to guilty, and the priest did not have to testify. 

“It’s a hard thing for most people to wrap their minds around, but the seal of confession is absolute,” Father Vallone told OSV. “There are no loopholes, no lenient interpretations. There is no way around it as we teach it. If a priest breaks the seal, he is immediately suspended from his priestly duties.” 

“The penalty is excommunication,” he added. 

A priest cannot break the seal even if a penitent divulges what was confessed. 

“There is no way to corroborate that,” Father Vallone said. “When a priest walks into the confessional, and walks out, it’s almost like a black hole in time. We are taught those things in the seminary. It becomes a way of life. Even if a man leaves the priesthood, there is still his personal integrity. He still has to live with himself and what his values are.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Fighting Back (sidebar)  

Father Timothy Mockaitis was stunned when a reporter called him in 1996 to ask what he thought about the secret taping of confessions. Only then did he learn that the confession he heard from jail inmate Conan Wayne Hale was secretly taped with the approval of the district attorney. A judge had issued and signed a warrant for the investigators to listen to it. 

“I didn’t know what to say,” Father Mockaitis said in a phone interview from Salem, Ore. “It was a serious violation not only of the seal of confession, but it was certainly a constitutional violation of privacy.” 

With the support of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, he took the case all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which found the taping to be a blatant violation of the First and Fourth Amendments, which guarantee freedom of religion and prohibit unreasonable search and seizure. Father Mockaitis tells the story of his ordeal in “The Seal: A Priest’s Story” (Xlibris, $19.99), released in 2008.