In The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings, released last month, journalist Thomas Maier reports that the recently widowed Jacqueline Kennedy told the Rev. Richard McSorley she had contemplated suicide. Maier’s book draws on interviews with the late McSorley, excerpts from his diary, and letters from her. Did McSorley violate the storied seal of the confessional by allowing the content of his conversations with Jackie Kennedy to become public?
Apparently not. Though McSorley’s disclosures are certainly seen as unprofessional, his conversations with Kennedy were so informal—the Jesuit theologian counseled her “under the guise of giving her tennis lessons”—that the revelations don’t actually break any church rules. Even non-Catholics know that the Roman Catholic Church solemnly enjoins priests from disclosing the contents of the sacrament of confession—or reconciliation, as it has been known since Vatican II. (Alfred Hitchcock even made a movie, I Confess, about a priest who allows himself to be charged with murder rather than finger the real killer, who admitted to the crime in confession.) The 1983 Code of Canon Law is explicit: “The sacramental seal is inviolable. Accordingly, it is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion.” Similar strictures exist in the 1917 code in force during the Kennedy-McSorley conversations.
But was Jackie Kennedy a “penitent”? Not if she didn’t intend to confess particular sins in order to receive absolution. To fall under the confessional seal, conversations must occur within the ritual of confession: They must be one-on-one, and the penitent must explicitly seek absolution (although no one actually has to utter the words “Bless me father, for I have sinned”).
Although Maier muddies matters by calling McSorley Jackie Kennedy’s “priest-confessor,” McSorley never says she confessed to him in these conversations. In fact Maier argues that she sought counseling, not absolution. “Catholics of [the Kennedys’] generation, regardless of their social strata, were far more inclined to seek out priests than psychiatrists to help with their problems.” And there is another way their conversations don’t fit the confidential confession template: “Sometimes,” Maier writes, “Ethel joined her sister-in-law as a doubles partner against McSorley.”
So McSorley is apparently off the hook when it comes to canon law, though there is a wrinkle: The current Code of Canon Law contains a separate provision calling for the protection of the right to privacy. But faulting McSorley under that provision would present an ex post facto problem. When he was counseling Jackie Kennedy, the 1917 Code of Canon Law was in force, and it lacked the privacy provision.
Canon experts agree, however, that McSorley’s revelations should be viewed in a broader context. Even where the seal of the confessional isn’t involved, conversations between a priest and a parishioner should be covered by professional confidentiality. And while Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is dead, canon lawyer Nicholas P. Cafardi notes she and JFK are survived by a daughter who is very much alive. Even if McSorley didn’t violate canon law, “the spirit of the law has been avoided,” Cafardi says.
Explainer thanks the Rev. Ron Jenkins of the Catholic University of America and Nicholas P. Cafardi of Duquesne University School of Law.