A Catholic priest who failed to take action when a parishioner expressed a wish to commit suicide during confession has been given a one-month suspended sentence for criminal negligence by a court in Bruges. Alexandre Stroobandt 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 Father 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 Johan Bonny, bishop of Antwerp, the man’s declaration was not covered by the secret of the confessional in any case. “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.”
Other members of the clergy interviewed by Het Laatste Nieuws were more rigid in their interpretation. “Some priests have been martyred in an attempt to get them to reveal the secrets of the confessional,” one said. “Are we supposed to be frightened by a month in prison?”
Father Stroobandt intends to appeal the conviction, his lawyer said.