As if the tragedy of sexual abuse in the French Catholic Church was not enough, the irrepressible Minister Delegate in Charge of Citizenship at the Ministry of the Interior, Marlène Schiappa, well-known for her campaigns against “cults,” started stirring up the government about the seal of confession.

What happened was that the independent commission that released last week an alarming report about sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy and lay workers in France included among its recommendation that priests who learn about sexual abuse of minors in confession should ignore the provisions of canon law and report the abuse to the police.

Unsurprisingly, Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the Bishops’ Conference of France, immediately answered that this recommendation cannot even be considered, as the secret of the confession is inviolable and priests who break it for any reason would be excommunicated.

Schiappa retorted that the Catholic Church cannot be privileged in France with respect to other religions.

Schiappa may be right, but the fact is that national and international jurisdictions have recognized that the seal of confession is unbreakable not only in the Catholic Church but in all religions that have similar confessional practices.

Sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests is a tragedy nobody can deny, including the French Church—which is so concerned that it commissioned the independent report and paid for it (a circumstance not always clarified in international comments). It is not a French problem.

It is, as Pope Francis said, a global shame that threatens the very future of the Catholic Church and raises unavoidable questions about how seminaries worked and future priests were trained.

Yet, using the tragedy as a picklock to break the seal of confession, for all churches, seriously threatens religious liberty. In 2011, I served as the Representative of the OSCE (Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe) for combating racism, xenophobia, and intolerance and discrimination against Christians and members of other religions.

I became somewhat famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view) for picking a quarrel with Ireland, a country which was concerned (rightly) with the Catholic clergy’s involvement in sexual abuse and tried (wrongly) to use this concern to legislate against the seal of confession. I was also part of several secular and Catholic commissions investigating the horrors of clerical sexual abuse and have studied these problems for decades.

There are two sides to the confession controversy.

First, the seal of confession is part of what the Catholic Church is all about. It is one of its most sacred institutions and principles, and there are similar secrets in other religions. The idea that religions should not have secrets, or that states have a right to know all of them, misunderstand the millennia-old connection between sacred and secret.

On March 20, 1393, King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia had a Catholic priest called John Nepomucene arrested, tortured, and thrown from the Charles Bridge in Prague into the Vltava river, where he died.

John’s crime was that he had refused to discuss with the king what he had learned in confession from his wife, Queen Sofia. John was later canonized by the Catholic Church as a martyr of the seal of confession, and an embodiment of the principle that Catholic priests should die rather than break the confessional seal.

The Canon law of the Catholic Church reaffirms this point. Priests who violate the seal of confession, even to obey secular laws or save their own liberty and life, are excommunicated.

The second side of the controversy is that it is largely a flag raised for questions of principle. In my own decade-old study of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, I never encountered a priest who had faced the dilemma of revealing what he had learned in confession or let a sexual abuser roam free. The criminals who abuse minors do not go and spill out their secrets in confession. Canon case law knows rare cases (mostly happening in past centuries) of immoral priests absolving each other in confession. If caught, they were excommunicated, but since they were all part of the same criminal rings they would not have reported others, and themselves, to the police.

Minors abused by priests may tell other priests, but why should they do it within the ritual context of confession?

Not to mention that the percentage of Catholics in general who take confession has dramatically decreased, and there are parishes, certainly in France, where only a handful of old devotees would go to confession. And that those who have committed shameful or illegal acts in general would not confess them if they could not be sure that the confessional seal guarantees that what they tell the priest will not be reported to anybody else.

In the unlikely event that a victim tells a priest about the abuse in confession, the priest can always ask him (or her) to repeat the story once the ritual of the confession has been closed by the sacramental formula of absolution. Of course, revelations to a priest outside the confession are not covered by the confessional seal.

The Minister Schiappas of this world seem not to understand how confessions really work in the 21st century. Nor do they deeply care about religious liberty, which is a problem no less serious than the crimes committed by clerical abusers.

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new...