Thinking Anglicans

Seal of the Confessional

David Pocklington of Law & Religion UK wrote this last month: CofE to axe seal of confessional? Today he published this update: Seal of confessional: its future in the CofE. Together these clearly describe the current position.

Do read both articles, but I draw attention to part of what the Archbishop of York said in his statement on the Waddington Enquiry:

… one of those who reported abuse to the Inquiry has since asked me specifically to raise the question of The Confessional. His view is that disclosures made in the context of a formal Confession which give rise to safeguarding concerns should not enjoy absolute confidentiality.

I have every sympathy with this view, and therefore welcome the fact that the Archbishops’ Council has decided to commission theological and legal work with a view to exploring whether the current position in relation to admissions of abuse in the context of a formal Confession should be changed. That work and any recommendations arising from it will need to be discussed with the House of Bishops before any proposals for change are brought before the General Synod.

This matter will undoubtedly be raised during a take-note debate on draft revised Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy (GS 1970) at General Synod next month. There is an accompanying paper specifically on the ministry of absolution (GS Misc 1085) which confirms the Archbishop’s statement that the Archbishops’ Council is to commission a review of the seal of the confessional.

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Matthew Duckett
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Matthew Duckett

This seems to be arising from two sources: (i) let’s panic and cover our backs over a problem that we don’t even know exists; (ii) a fundamental confusion of confession with things that confession is not, such as counselling, therapy, or a confidential conversation. Confession is the disclosure of sins by a penitent to a priest for the purpose of obtaining absolution, no more, no less. Penitents, especially those in desperate need, need to know that they can trust the priest they are going to. If exceptions are allowed to the seal, they won’t. Behind all this is I suspect… Read more »

rjb
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rjb

After years of pointless and largely-irrelevant hand-wringing about gay priests and women bishops, the Church of England now appears to have stumbled into a genuinely weighty and fearful theological dilemma without even really trying to. Unsurprising, I suppose, that it is the ABY who should boldly and tactlessly lead us into this particular morass. Is there no situation this man is incapable of misjudging? I would suggest that better and clearer guidance for confessors might very well be more useful than threatening both the sacrament of reconciliation and the pastoral relationship between priest and penitent, but that would perhaps be… Read more »

Bernard Randall
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Bernard Randall

This strikes to the heart of what it means to be a priest. Is a priest merely a functionary, some kind of social worker? If so, then only secular rules about confidentiality will apply. The priest in the confessional is nothing other than a kind of counsellor or psychotherapist. But if a priest is a minister of God, then the hearing of Confession is an act of God; since God does not reveal the sins people confess, neither does the priest. That’s the nature of the sacrament of penance. Confession is made to God, and the priest’s job is to… Read more »

Jean Mayland (Revd)
Guest
Jean Mayland (Revd)

I thought that Archbishop Sentamu’s suggestion was that the priest should withhold forgiveness until the person concerned had also confessed their action to the Police

Anthony Archer
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Anthony Archer

The CofE (it is in some company) is having to react to the utter shame on it that has resulted from having failed to safeguard young people and vulnerable adults, some of whom have been abused by priests themselves, over a period of 50 years or more. No-one knows whether confessions of child abuse, or indeed other criminal acts, have been made under the seal of the confessional, but what is clear is that absolution is not something that the priest is bound to give unconditionally. We have moved into a zero tolerance regime and priests can no longer hide… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest

Surely, no priest is above the law. The seal of the confessional does not require unconditional forgiveness to be dispensed through the priest where there is an admission of criminal activity. All the priest can do – to comply with the law, as well as his priestly duty – is to advise the penitent to report his actions to the appropriate legal authority, before God’s forgiveness is appropriated. HOWEVER; when homosexual activity was ‘against the law’ (as it still is in some African Anglican jurisdictions), presumably the confessor was able to apply his own insights about whether the penitent needed… Read more »

Savi Hensman
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Savi Hensman

The Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy already advise that absolution should be withheld from those who confess child or adult abuse unless they also tell the police or social services. The change is about removing confidentiality as has happened in Australia where I gather, if anyone were to confess child sexual abuse, domestic violence or anything other offence carrying a sentence of 5 years or more, confidentiality would not be guaranteed. Under UK law this might include offences such as possessing cocaine. Presumably in such circumstances, if someone were not yet willing to disclose an offence to… Read more »

Peter Owen
Guest

David Pocklington wrote about the situation in Australia in this post from July this year.

http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2014/07/09/oz-anglicans-reject-seal-of-confessional/

Bernard Randall
Guest
Bernard Randall

Fr Ron, as it currently stands, the seal of the confessional is part of the law of the land (at least as regards Anglican clergy). Granted other more recent laws might appear to be in conflict with this, but that appearance has never been tested in court, and is never likely to be imho (Judges being too cautious about such things). So no, no priest is above the law. But in the matter of the confessional, the priest is protected by the law – indeed, is under a legal compulsion not to reveal anything confessed (being “straitly charge[d] and admonish[ed]… Read more »

Anthony Archer
Guest
Anthony Archer

We are not far away from mandatory reporting. The reality is that penitents (criminals) are already deterred from seeking absolution from a priest. What is needed, as Savi Hensman has noted, is a well resourced system. A wide category of people must be required to report cases where they reasonably suspect abuse, and that certainly includes all people who operate in positions of trust.

Interested Observer
Guest
Interested Observer

Unfortunately for the CofE (and the Catholic Church) the argument reduces to this: “If child abusers are not able to confess without fear of reporting to the authorities, they will no seek or receive absolution, and will therefore go to hell with their sins unshriven”. To which the general public, and not a few regular church goers, will respond “Good”. The response would be less emphatic if the CofE and the Catholic Church had not got a track record of covering up serious and on-going child abuse by its own employees, but both organisations clearly have. As the German Green… Read more »

Bernard Randall
Guest
Bernard Randall

Interested Observer, it’s not, as it seems to me at least, about concern for whether abusers will seek the ministry of reconciliation. It’s about whether this ministry is sacramental or not. Currently the Church thinks it is. So either the Church changes its mind about that – in which case that’s a lurch towards Protestantism, as others have suggested (though I suppose not all in the CofE would mind that), or the Church stands fast in its beliefs, and the debate becomes about freedom of religion. Getting the public to understand may be tricky, but parliamentarians, and more specifically Supreme… Read more »

Mark Bennet
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Mark Bennet

There is a sense in which “the seal of the confessional” does not get to the heart of the matter, though it is related. The issue is how this feature of catholic spirituality in particular (it is not every tradition in the CofE which would call personal confession to a priest “sacramental) has functioned culturally – and whether it has bred a culture of secrecy at the expense of truth, rather than a true culture of penitence. The presenting issue is not how confession functions as part of a theological system, but whether that theological function is subverted in reality… Read more »

Marshall Scott
Guest

I think there are a couple of other assumptions that need at least to be claimed. The first is about any penitent coming for confession. In the Episcopal Church sacramental confession has never been common (over the whole church; there have certainly been a few congregations). Indeed, the commons aphorism here is “All can; some should; none must.” That being the case, anyone coming for confession for any sin is someone for whom sacramental absolution (or the withholding of it) will be meaningful. That value may still not be stronger than refusal to self-report; but it is not meaningless. My… Read more »

Martin Reynolds
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Martin Reynolds

I raised earlier how my time as a prison chaplain would have been radically different without the guarantee of absolute confidentiality. Priestly ministry as I have lived it would be transformed by a measure that changed the ancient ways and it seems that Welby is admitting this and he accepts how deep and dramatic the change would be. I cannot see how this potentially catastrophic transformation of priest into informant would have prevented the even more catastrophic history of child abuse within the CofE. Even within the Catholic wing of Anglicanism the sacrament of reconciliation is not common, after 60… Read more »

John-Julian, OJN
Guest
John-Julian, OJN

In my nearly 60 years of priesthood, I know of two Episcopal priests who were subpoenaed to give evidence based on information given in sacramental Confession. In both cases, the priests stood silent in the witness box and refused to answer any question regarding those confessions (not even revealing that the offenders had MADE a confession). Both were charged with contempt of court—charges dropped when the offenders were judged guilty by other evidence. (BCP p. 446: “The secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for the confessor, and must under no circumstances be broken”) Note: One of the reasons for… Read more »

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

Marshall,
it’s not so much a question of having to choose between breaking the law and facing the consequences or not. The choice may well be not reporting an abuser and therefore having to live with the possibility that you may be partly responsible for other children being abused.

Tim Chesterton
Guest

Bernard Randall says, ‘Any spiritual counsel is an added bonus (but doubtless highly worthwhile!)’ That is not the view of the 1662 BCP. Note the words of the first exhortation at Holy Communion: ‘And because it is requisite, that no man should come to the holy Communion, but with a full trust in God’s mercy, and with a quiet conscience; therefore if there be any of you, who by this means cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God’s Word, and… Read more »

Savi Hensman
Guest
Savi Hensman

The levels of child sexual abuse in strongly Protestant churches (see e.g. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/01/protestant-sex-abuse-boz-tchividijian_n_4019347.html, http://www.snapnetwork.org/protestors_say_southern_baptists_not_taking_clergy_sex_abuse_seriously) with no tradition of sacramental confession suggests a wider problem. One symptom might be some confessors offering absolution too easily but deterring those abusers who know they have done wrong from coming to confession will not resolve the underlying problems.

Interested Observer
Guest
Interested Observer

“Look at the collapse in the RC church in Ireland as the don’t tell policy imploded.”

So what’s the argument: that with a different policy, systematic abuse might have been kept under wraps for another generation and the polity of the church preserved? Surely you can’t think that would have been a good thing? In what world is the prosecution of the guilty and the provision of (inadequate, but anything would be) restitution to the victims anything other than an unalloyed good?

Geoff
Guest

“Slippery slope arguments, bizarre constructions about “what about young victims seeking confession but not wanting any practical help?” and so on will not make the argument any more compelling” But is that any less true of the other “side”? “Perfect storms” of circumstance like in “Priest” are probably a pretty obscure hypothetical too. As Bernard says, a confession to such a crime that does not end in surrender is unlikely to meet the strictures for a sacramental confession (indeed, this was Roger Ebert’s main factual quibble with “Priest”!). And if the intention is to remove the seal for drug offences… Read more »

Martin Reynolds
Guest
Martin Reynolds

In the whole context of my post it’s something of a struggle to make the laboured point raised by Interested Observer. It’s always hard looking back to draw easy conclusions. For example, when I was a teenager my father described to me the brutal punishments he received from monks and nuns in Glasgow RC schools during the 1920’s. Later in life I asked him about this and he agreed that by today’s standards the punishments were horrific but he said the punishments at Catholic schools were considered much less brutal than those handed out at parish schools. Elsewhere I suggested… Read more »

Bernard Randall
Guest
Bernard Randall

Tim, I read the “together with” as meaning that this is an additional to the basic purpose (of Absolution). This certainly seems logical – the absolution is of undoubted efficacy, the “ghostly counsel” may be absolute rubbish, for one depends on God, the other on the priest. Erika, the priest’s conscience may be troubled, but only if he or she hasn’t fully bought into the sacramental nature of penance – in which case probably don’t offer to hear confessions! After all, the penitent may confess to other crimes which wouldn’t be subject to reporting but may suggest future harm. Domestic… Read more »

Bernard Randall
Guest
Bernard Randall

John-Julian, well done those two priests. Interestingly, Thomas Aquinas (and who are we to argue?), a priest required under oath to reveal a confession can simply deny any knowledge without perjury, because the priest knows nothing as a human and the oath is taken as human. Only God knows what has been confessed, and God isn’t on the witness stand. Which will look like pure sophistry to those who don’t believe, of course. I wonder whether, in the USA where there isn’t a direct legal protection, the priests could have made use of the their constitutional rights under the Fifth… Read more »

Simon R
Guest
Simon R

‘As it currently stands, the seal of the confessional is part of the law of the land…’ @Bernard Randall. Is it? Which law? I was always taught, before and after ordination (2000), that the seal of the confessional had no standing whatsoever in English statute and that, if someone confessed to the abuse of the vulnerable (irrespective of whether I withheld absolution or not) I would be deemed culpable if I did not inform the authorities. I have always taken that seriously (though, thankfully, never been placed in a position where I needed to act on it). If we clarify… Read more »

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

Couldn’t agree more with Interested Observer. Religious freedom isn’t close to being absolute, and society has a compelling interest in gathering evidence against child molesters. The theological argument can easily be gotten around: a penitent can be warned, up front, that confidentiality doesn’t apply to confessions of child abuse. If they want sacramental absolution, fine, they can turn themselves in and receive it. If they don’t, then tough. As for this change making the Church of England protestant: that ship sailed over 400 years ago. The Catholic Church has said, repeatedly, that it’s not in communion with Anglicans, and that… Read more »

Christopher
Guest
Christopher

Simon R, remember that statutes are not the only form of law. The canons of the Church of England, including the canon on the seal of the confessional, are legally binding on the clergy as part of the law of England. However, there is case law that suggests that canons are not binding on the laity (because historically the laity were not represented in the Convocations that enacted canons). There is uncertainty about whether the courts would apply the canon on the seal of the confessional in a case involving laypeople. Another theory, aside from the canon, is that the… Read more »

Interested Observer
Guest
Interested Observer

” the seal of the confessional had no standing whatsoever in English statute and that, if someone confessed to the abuse of the vulnerable (irrespective of whether I withheld absolution or not) I would be deemed culpable if I did not inform the authorities”

English law does not have explicit provision for the seal of the confessional.

However, with some very tightly drawn exceptions which aren’t relevant here, you are not obliged to report knowledge that you have of a crime.

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

“If the seal of the confessional is a moral absolute then there can be no moral scruples about keeping it” When I read sentences like this, I always imagine the person who wrote them facing Jesus and next to him, someone who has suffered as a consequence. And I try to imagine that person saying to a child: “Sorry you had to be abused and murdered. I knew this was a likely possibility, but you must understand that I did not have the slightest moral scruples.” I can just about understand someone grappling with the morals of it all knowing… Read more »

Tristan
Guest
Tristan

“I’ll indulge Anglo-Catholic pretense when it does no harm, but certainly not on this.”

And so the true face of liberalism is seen.

Bernard Randall
Guest
Bernard Randall

Simon R,

Canon Law is part of the law of the land – that’s one part of Establishment. This is why the women bishops stuff had to go to Parliament. So the unrepealed Proviso to the 1603 Canons stands. Generally speaking, later laws only replace or over-ride earlier ones if they specifically say so. The seal of the confessional has never been tested in court (and I’ve said, I don’t think any Judge would allow it to get that far – much too complicated), which does leave things a little vague, perhaps, but whoever trained you was wrong about this.

Bernard Randall
Guest
Bernard Randall

Erika, I think you’re being unfair. Human life is full of making decisions, and often there are competing moral claims about the choices we make. Sometimes with hindsight we accept that we have made poor decisions, but we all, surely, make the best decisions we can, based on the information available to us and what our conscience tells us. And no person’s conscience exists in a vacuum – it must be formed by outside influences, especially the moral insights of a person’s cultural context, which includes religious beliefs. So a priest makes a conscientious decision (informed by the faith tradition)… Read more »

Martin Reynolds
Guest
Martin Reynolds

“I’ll indulge Anglo-Catholic pretense when it does no harm, but certainly not on this.”
James Byron
And so the true face of liberalism is seen.
Tristan
Both of these remarks are nonsense.

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

Bernard, I’m sorry if I sounded unfair. I don’t actually believe that a human being makes a one off moral choice in a theoretical vacuum and then never re-evaluates it when hit with a real life situation. And in a real life situation, they will be asking themselves precisely those questions you have just listed. And the answers may not be a simple “we can’t know, so we might as well pretend that nothing harmful is going to come of it”. And they will know that they will have to live with the uncertainty of not knowing whether their choice… Read more »

Tim Chesterton
Guest

Don’t get me wrong, Bernard, I’m not in the habit of hearing confessions very often myself, although I am frequently asked for ‘ghostly counsel and advice’ (in the context of which, some confession often takes place). And since I was raised in a clergy family, I was schooled from a very young age with the idea that people told my dad things that he couldn’t tell anyone else. I notice that there are many people who find this hard to believe. There are people in our parish who assume that my wife Marci knows everything I know about what they… Read more »

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

Tristan, since when has absolute religious freedom been a tenet of liberalism (or, indeed, any ideology whatsoever)?

Unless you believe that everything from human sacrifice to killing apostates ought to get a pass, you share my belief that religious freedom can be limited. Then it’s only a question of how and why.

How d’you believe the seal of the confessional should be applied?

Marshall Scott
Guest

Erika, I agree with your sentiment, if not your specifics. In my state, and in all the United States as I’m aware of them, there is a legal requirement to report evidence of possible physical or sexual abuse of children, and that requirement includes no protection for sacramental confession. In that specific instance (and I don’t think it the only possible crime) there is always some balancing of civil/criminal law and risk of future crimes, and commitment to sacramental confession. And even if there were not that legal situation (i.e., if sacramental confession *were* legally protected), I would certainly have… Read more »

rick allen
Guest

FWIW, my impression is that most American jurisdictions recognize a wide privilege for clegy communications, not limited to sacramental confession. The Federal Rules of Evidence tend to rely on State standards. I am not of course knowledgeable about all fifty states, but my impression is that our New Mexico rule is pretty typical: RULE 11-506. Communications to Clergy. A. Definitions. As used in this rule: (1) a “member of the clergy” is a minister, priest, rabbi or other similar functionary of a religious organization, or an individual reasonably believed so to be by the person consulting that person; (2) a… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest

An interesting story in ‘The Tablet’ this week, about a partnered gay man being refused absolution by a R.C. priest. Not exactly a violation of the confessional, but maybe a sad commentary on the confessor.