A Belgian court has given a priest a one-month suspended sentence for failing to help when a parishioner expressed a desire to commit suicide. Source: Brussels Times.
Fr Alexandre Stroobandt was chaplain to a rest home when the man, a resident in the home, called him several times and sent a number of text messages saying he was depressed and wished to take his own life. The day after his last message he killed himself in his car.
The man’s widow found the messages he had sent to Fr Stroobandt and made a complaint, claiming the priest could have taken action to prevent her husband’s suicide.
“The priest knew our address, she wrote. “He could have alerted the police but he did nothing. When I contacted him, he took refuge behind the secret of the confessional, and told me he had done everything he could to convince my husband not to take his own life. But a professional secret is surely not sacrosanct to the point where it places a human life in danger?”
The prosecution agreed, and the court followed their reasoning. Not only that, but according to Antwerp Bishop Johan Bonny the man’s declaration was not covered by the secret of the confessional.
“The person in question was not speaking of a sin,” he told VRT Radio, “But of the dark thoughts he was experiencing.”
“The sanctity of the confessional is concerned with confession,” he explained. “Confession only exists when someone avows a sin he has committed and for which he seeks forgiveness. There is thus a formal framework with fixed elements.”
La Croix International reports the widow’s lawyer said "there was no confession. It was simply a telephone conversation between a priest and a man who needed help".
Belgian theologian Henri Wattiaux, a professor emeritus at the Catholic University of Louvain, said the notion that a confession can be made by telephone is “highly debatable”.
“If there is any doubt on the matter, the priest is not necessarily held to absolute secrecy,” he said.
Fr Stroobandt’s lawyer says he intends to appeal the conviction.
Belgian priest convicted of negligence over suicide (La Croix International)