By Hugh Schofield in Paris
The dilemma has been around as long as priests have been hearing and forgiving the sins of the faithful.
What to do when the sin is a heinous crime, punishable with the full force of the secular law?
Half a century ago, in Hitchcock'sfilm I Confess, Montgomery Clift played a Roman Catholic priest whohears the confession of a murderer.
Because of his vows, he refuses to tell the police and finds himself the chief suspect.
Even as recently as then, the sanctity of the confessional was taken for granted.
What has happened since is two-fold:first, the growing secularisation of western society, so that thereligious process of avowal leading to divine pardon is no longercomprehensible.
And second, the explosion of public knowledge of child sex abuse, and its elevation into the ultimate modern sin.
Priests vs police
Thus we have in France today the caseof bishop facing charges and a possible jail term for refusing to breakthe confessional confidences of a paedophile.
According to the prosecution, BishopPierre Pican was criminally negligent when he failed to report theactivities of Father Rene Bissey, convicted last October on 11 countsof sex abuse, even though he knew of them for two years.
According to the church, the bishopcould certainly have acted differently - by taking a more activeinterest in the affair, for example, and persuading Bissey to turnhimself in - but his essential decision not to reveal the secrecy ofthe confession was sound.
Bishop Pican refused to break the secrecy of the confessional
The church's reasoning is simple: ifthere are exceptions allowed in the inviolability of the confession,then it automatically becomes meaningless.
What sinner would be encouraged tolighten his conscience and start the process of spiritual healing, ifhe feared he might be turned in to the police at the church door?
And how could a priest act as a link between a man and his God if his also the ecclesiastical wing of the judiciary?
Eight centuries ago, the doctrine wasclear enough. As Pope Innocent III put it in 1215, "Whoever reveals asin announced at the tribunal of penitence ... must be stripped of hispriestly office and committed to life in a monastery of strictobservance."
But today, priests are seen as men like any others, with responsibilities to society that outweigh their duties to the church.
Bishop Pican may have been acting outof concern for the immortal soul of a sinner, but he neglected theactual suffering of the sinner's victims.
They, in the modern world, are regarded as rather more important.