Outspoken Melbourne priest Fr Bob Maguire was a guest on youth radio station Triple J on Sunday night when host John Saffran invited callers to take part in radio confessions.
Three listeners rang in, confessed on air, and were given penance by Father Maguire.
But Vicar General of the Melbourne Archdiocese Monsignor Les Tomlinson said the church regards radio confessions as inappropriate because they break the secrecy seal of the confessional. He said there could be severe repercussions for a priest who broke the seal, including defrocking or excommunication.
"The penitent may choose to reveal the contents of their confession, but the priest can never break the seal of the confessional, and that includes broadcasting it on radio," Monsignor Tomlinson said.
Monsignor Tomlinson said the callers’ sins would not have been forgiven because the official words of absolution were not used, and was concerned the callers may have believed they had received real absolution.
The church has long resisted calls for phone confessions, insisting the rite be kept personal. Monsignor Tomlinson said radio confessions could also embarrass a third party who had not consented to being identified. [Source]
The question of hearing confession with the confessor and the penitent being physically present to each other came up fairly soon after the widespread use of the telephone. The answer given was no and it would apply to any form of communication where people are not physically present. The answer given in the article is not really the main reason why this is denied. The following is a good explanation of why this is.
When we go to the Gospels and watch Jesus at work ministering to people, we notice that in his ministry of the forgiveness of personal sins, Jesus was always physically present to that person: up close and personal, we might say. Read for example Mark 2,1-12 or John 8,1-11. When we remember that every Sacrament is a personal encounter with the Lord in and through the person of the minister, that ministerial-person must be very present to us, "right next to us", so to speak. This cannot be done on the phone or by email. And since each Sacrament is also an action of the Church, the minister (in this case, the priest) is that personal presence of the Church to us. That important personal ecclesial dimension would be missing on the phone or in email. Confession, mid-20th century. Many churches today have small chapels where people can meet face to face, if they wish, with the confessor, or from behind a screen.
That being said it makes me wonder what could have happened if sacramental confession did not have to be in person.
So without further adieu I bring you e-fession.