The Archdiocese of Milwaukee announced Wednesday that a priest has lost the faculty to hear confessions validly, after he published an op-ed supporting a bill that would remove legal protections for the confessional seal.
Archbishop Jerome Listecki announced March 22 that he had “immediately removed the canonical faculties of Father [James] Connell to validly celebrate the Sacrament of Confession and to offer absolution, here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and thereby also in the Catholic Church around the world.”
Priests are required to have faculties from a diocesan bishop to validly hear confessions and confer sacramental absolution. Listecki’s withdrawal of Connell’s faculties renders the priest unable to hear confession in any cases unless a particular penitent is in immediate danger of death.
Connell, 80, is retired from active ministry in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, after a priestly career which included stints as both a diocesan curial official and a parish pastor.
The priest, who is a canon lawyer, has been a long-time advocate for the victims of clerical sexual abuse.
On March 12, he published an op-ed in the Delaware News Journal, which voiced support for a bill in the Delaware legislature that would strip legal protection from the confessional seal, requiring priests to report knowledge or suspicion of child abuse and neglect which they had gleaned from the confessional.
“No institution in our society, not even a recognized religion, has a significant advantage over governments’ compelling interest and responsibility to protect its children from harm by abuse or neglect. Thus, no valid freedom of religion argument rooted in the absence of truth can provide a moral justification for sheltering perpetrators of abuse or neglect of children from their deserved punishment, while also endangering potential victims,” the priest wrote.
“Governments should intervene such that, while perhaps frustrating the free exercise of religion for some people, the greater good of protecting children from abuse or neglect would be enhanced for the common good of all people,” he added.
Identifying himself as a priest, Connell urged that “all people in Delaware should support the proposed HB 74 that would repeal the Delaware clergy-penitent privilege statute.”
The Catholic Church teaches that the seal of confession - which prohibits confessors from disclosing or using information gained during the sacrament - is “inviolable.” The seal, in the teaching of the Church, exists to ensure that those who wish to repent of their sin are free to do so without any risk that their confessions might be subsequently used against them.
Confessors can not disclose information learned in the sacrament even with permission of penitents, and a direct disclosure of confessional material carries with it the canonical penalty of excommunication.
While norms ensuring the secrecy of sacramental confession date back even earlier, canonical sources from the 12th century record that priests who violated the seal faced serious ecclesiastical sanction.
But in recent years, following significant clerical abuse scandals, lawmakers in some states have pushed for measures to rescind civil law protections for the seal, requiring that mandatory reporting laws governing other confidential contexts, like therapy, also apply to the sacrament of confession. Church leaders have said the seal is protected by the First Amendment, and is a requirement for Catholics to have confidence in the integrity of their confessions.
There have been dozens of priests martyred or persecuted in the history of the Church for their refusal to violate the seal.
In Milwaukee, Archbishop Listecki said that Connell’s writing on the subject has “caused understandable and widespread unrest among the People of God, causing them to question if the privacy of the confessional can now be violated, by him or any other Catholic priest.”
Listecki asserted the inviolability of the sacrament as a matter of moral obligation.
When Connell “publicly advocated for the removal of the legal protection of the confessional seal,” and “suggest[ed] there are situations where it is permissible to violate it,” his writing was “gravely contrary to the definitive teachings of the Catholic Church about this sacrament.”
“The Catholic Church firmly declares that the sacramental seal of confession is always, and in every circumstance without exception, completely inviolable. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee fully assents to this fundamental tenet of the Catholic faith.”
Listecki’s assertion would seem to be supported by the work of the renowned theologian and canonist Fr. Felix Capello, SJ, who wrote in the 1930s that “the practice of the Church” demonstrates the moral obligation of the canonical seal “in not acknowledging any power, even that of the Roman Pontiff, on any occasion or from any motive, of dispensing from this law.”
Capello noted that numerous fathers of the Church also spoke of a moral duty to clerical silence on matters confessed directly to priests, and otherwise unknown.
Connell, who served previously as vice-chancellor in the Milwaukee archdiocese, founded in 2013 an organization called Catholic Whistleblowers, which urged the Holy See to investigate allegations of cover-up or administrative neglect against Cardinals Justin Rigali and Raymond Burke, and has criticized the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for the handling of cemetery funds and records management uring its 2011 bankruptcy declaration.
When former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland died last August, Connell objected to the public funeral celebrated by Listecki at Milwaukee’s Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
Weakland was publicly accused in 2002 of sexually assaulting a younger man in the 1980s, and of later paying him off with “hush money,” as he called it, taken from the coffers of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee - money which he paid back, years later, with earnings from his book sales.
The archbishop resigned after the allegations became public.
Weakland eventually apologized for the “scandal” of his conduct, but insisted the sexual contact was consensual. While the man said he’d been raped by Weakland, the archbishop said he was “in love,” and he regarded the whole thing as “an affair.”
In fact, Weakland admitted in 2009 to having several relationships with men during his tenure as an archbishop, which he chalked up to “loneliness that became very strong.”
Beyond the personal allegation of sexual assault, Weakland has become associated with the worst excesses of the Church’s institutional cover-up of sexual abuse.
As Archbishop of Milwaukee, Weakland frequently oversaw the transfer of sexually abusive priests between parishes, has been accused of castigating victims, and coercing them into signing settlement agreements which prevented abusers from seeing justice, and is known for suing abuse victims to recover archdiocesan court costs.
Connell said the funeral “puts salt in the wounds of victims-survivors of clergy sexual abuse.”
He urged local priests to “stay away from the funeral on Tuesday. Your absence from the funeral will provide support for all who suffer in any way because of Weakland’s evil actions.”
In 2009, Connell himself was accused of covering up allegations of sexual abuse against a priest while he served as Milwaukee’s vice-chancellor. The archdiocese said that accusation was unfounded.
In 2021, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett designated April 30 as “Father James Connell Day” in the city.
The mayor’s citation said that Connell “before and during the COVID-19 pandemic [had] prayerfully inspired and led the members of our faith community to a greater understanding of the Gospel messages and stronger appreciation of their faith through the teaching of love, respect, and care for all people.”
Connell has not responded to The Pillar’s request for comment.