"Bless me father for I have killed," teases the ad for the movie "The Rosary Murders."
In the movie, an unseen man walks into the confessional booth at Holy Redeemer Church in a down-at-the-heels Detroit neighborhood and tells a priest, Father Koestler (Donald Sutherland), "I ' m the one. "
He's the one the police are looking for who has been killing priests and nuns, and he is "not finished." He intends to kill again. "Scared Father?"
"Yes," replies Sutherland with a an edge of fear in his face.
Through the confessional grate, the man tosses over a calling card--a string of black rosary beads he has been leaving on his victims.
What can a priest, whose vow of silence as confessor is inviolable, do?
As Pope John Paul II arrived in the United States, two movies dealing with the issue of confession, the Catholic sacrament of penance, opened.
In the second movie, "A Prayer for the Dying," Martin Fallon (Mickey Rourke), a tormented IRA hit man, kills for the last time. The murder of a gang leader in a cemetery is witnessed by a priest, Father Da Costa (Bob Hoskins). Presumably to prevent the priest from talking, Fallon finds the priest and confesses.
However, according to theologians and canon lawyers contacted by The Times, there is nothing to prevent a priest from divulging information he gets as an independent witness. As Father David Power, chairman of the department of theology at Catholic University in Washington, noted, the priest in "A Prayer for the Dying" can talk because "the information does not come from the confessional."
"Rosary Murders," based on the 1979 novel by former priest William Kienzle, presents a more provocative situation. Koestler, a liberal priest in such matters as baptizing a baby who has been born out of wedlock or promising to walk an ex-nun down the aisle at her marriage to a non-Catholic, knows he cannot talk--even to save lives.
"The sacramental seal is inviolable," according to Canon No. 983, Section 1. "Therefore it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner for any reason."
Canon 1388, Section 1: "A confessor who directly violates the seal of confession incurs automatic excommunication which is reserved to the Apostolic See."
Father Richard Hill, professor of canon law at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, interrupted his reading of the most recent 1983 edition of the Code of Canon Law, and observed: "A crime. That's the strongest expression in the Latin language."
And, he noted, "no one can remit (the penalty for breaking the seal) except the Pope or a top (Vatican) official."
The canon law of confidentiality stems from medieval times, Hill said. "I presume it would not have been put in there if it hadn't (been violated) sometime," he said.
None of those interviewed, however, could cite any specific instance where the confessional seal has been broken. Nor could they cite any examples of indirect violation, where a priest unwittingly violates the seal. These "gray areas," noted Hill, would fall under the jurisdiction of individual bishops.
"If ever people got even the slightest hint the confessional seal could be broken," noted Father Gregory Coiro, an associate in communications for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and a teacher at St. Francis High School in La Canada Flintridge, "it would break down the confidence in the sacrament and people would shy away (from it) as a means of forgiveness. . . . Say someone confessed a murder and they were about to electrocute someone else, you cannot make the real murderer confess. Thank God, these cases rarely occur."
Confession, said Hill, is "the way in which we reconcile ourselves with God and the Church."
Or, as another priest, Father Killeen, tells tells Father Koestler in "Rosary Murders": "Break the seal of confession and you destroy the Church."
Still, a priest's hands are not entirely tied. A well-used supposition came up during interviews with the clergy, and it is raised in "Rosary Murders": What if someone put cyanide in the Communion wine?
After telling Koestler that the business of the confessional sacrament is "saving souls, not lives" Killeen adds pointedly: "Then you'll have to find a way to accidentally spill the wine."
In actuality, theologians and canon lawyers say, a priest could deliberately knock over the wine. "Does anyone know I heard that in confession?" asked Hill. "I haven't revealed it to a third party."
Or, as Hill and Father Joseph Fessio, professor of systematic theology at the University of San Francisco and editor of Ignatius Press suggested, there was no reason why a building that a terrorist threatened to blow up couldn't be evacuated. And, as in "Rosary Murders," no one argues that the priest cannot on his own attempt to find out who is doing the killing, try to follow him and stop him.