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A confession is an admission of having done (or thought) something wrong, usually legally or ethically. Though anyone can confess anything at any time, even in a high stakes court-room drama, this article discusses the specific religious act of confession.
In May 2014, the Louisiana Supreme court ruled that Fr. Jeff Bayhi may be subject to mandatory reporting laws regarding sexual abuse, and cannot invoke the privilege of confidentiality regarding an alleged confession made to him about sexual abuse by a young girl. The diocese explained that a priest is under the gravest of obligations not to reveal the contents of a confession or if the confession even took place. He cannot do so even under threat of imprisonment or civil penalty, and incurs automatic excommunication if he breaks the “seal of confession.” For most Catholics, the issue is cut and dry, summarized pithily in the Catholic code of canon law – “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” (Canon Law # 983. §1)
In most states, the law mandates doctors to report any suspicion of child abuse. This also applies to other professionals like teachers, therapists, and law enforcement, though notably not one's own lawyer unless they disclose plans to commit a crime in the future.
As of 2019, Guam, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia explicitly or implicitly denied a religious exemption in their child abuse reporting laws. Since the US Supreme Court has yet to rule directly on this issue, it remains to be seen whether it will be held that the protection of children is sufficiently important to provide an exception to freedom of religion.
Roman Catholics believe that a priest is needed to hear the confession on God’s behalf, set a penance on God’s behalf, and, after penance, forgive the sins on God’s behalf. After hearing the confession and determining whether it is genuine, the priest offers spiritual advice and, zap, you are forgiven all your sins before God. Absolution is the actual act of God forgiving the sin, through the priest. It isn't the real thing until you hear this: "I absolve you from your sins. Go in peace, and may the lord bless you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." In Latin, Absolvo te.
Confession is one of the seven Sacraments, supposed to be signs of God's blessing to come in the world beyond. Far from being signs only, however, Christians believe that Sacraments have real power on earth. When a priest announces God's forgiveness in confession, the penitent (or one confessing) is really forgiven. Priests are careful to distinguish between ordinary (venial) sins and deadly (mortal) sins.
Roman Catholic priests listen to how sinners are tempted and yielded to temptation, then tell the sinners off and if they are responsible they try to get the sinner to stop sinning. Do Roman Catholic priests ever do bad stuff like suggesting to a penitent tempted to sexual sin, “Let’s do some sin together”? Sadly, that does happen from time to time.
Venial sins will not get you to Hell, but they are still really, really bad. God would rather kill and burn everyone in the world than allow someone to commit a venial sin. Yes! God is sometimes a little bit keen on killing, see Examples of God personally killing people. 
Mortal sins are very, very naughty. Mortal sins include bonking or desiring or wishing you had not failed to bonk your neighbor's wife, eating meat on Friday during Lent or missing Sunday Mass with bad intent, performing a drive-by shooting on helpless heroin addicts, assaulting a Subway with a chainsaw and forcing its employees to be spattered with their manager's blood while you cry out "Eat Fresh!" again and again so they see psychologists for years but still have dreams about it, setting fire to a church while screaming "Hail
Satan Perun Odin", barricading all the entrances of a church during a Mass and then burning it down, revealing the truth about RC priestly child abuse, wishing you had been at Woodstock, being Richard Dawkins publishing The God Delusion, and voting for Michele Bachmann.
The Roman Catholic Church does not actually list the Mortal Sins, as that would be too easy. They give "guidance" on what those sins likely are. Usually, they include: Killing, adultery, stealing, blasphemy, denying God, lying, and dishonoring your father and mother (from the Ten Commandments). Extramarital sex and divorce and masturbation are often included as Mortal Sins.
God forgives all sins through the agency of his priests, but some sinners must seek his forgiveness through the Pope.
Typically, if you commit a mortal sin, and you die, and you didn't confess it, then you may go to Hell, though an act of contrition may save you. It seems you can get to heaven without the Roman Catholic Church, so perhaps you can manage without all that confessing. 
Protestants have no formal act of confession; however, many believers feel it is an important part of worship, to admit one's failures, faults, and sins. This is done directly between God and the petitioner.
In Islam, the act of confessing is always done directly to Allah. One generally silently confesses as part of the ablutions before prayer.
Confessing one's wrongdoings before entering service to a temple is part of the novitiate training. Lifetime confessions to a brother or sister is a way of staying pure and focused, and is sometimes even a ritual in and of itself.
Judaism has no formal rite of confession per se, though the Yom Kippur liturgy contains a number of confessional prayers. Notably, however, Judaism requires the individual to seek forgiveness from those they have hurt before asking forgiveness from God. One can only wonder if the dropping of this requirement helps to explain why some Christians and Muslims are such colossal assholes.
- See the Wikipedia article on Crimethink.
- See the Wikipedia article on Confessor.
- Priests Should Not Be Forced to Break the Seal of Confession, Trent Horn (July 24, 2014) Catholic.com.
- Clergy as Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect (2019) Child Welfare Information Gateway. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Crime of Solicitation
- Forgive me, Father, for I have touched myself
- The technical definition of a Mortal Sin is one that 1) is "grave", meaning directly from the Ten Commandments, 2) is done with full intent of the person, and with full knowledge of the nature of the sin.
- Mortal Sin