Thinking Anglicans

Forward in Faith defends the Seal of the Confessional

Forward in Faith has submitted a response to the Working Group on the Seal of the Confessional established by the Archbishops’ Council.

For the background on this see this TA article from October last year and the articles from Law & Religion UK linked there.

The members of the working group are listed in this document.

The press release from Forward in Faith is available here and is copied below the fold.

The full text of the response is also linked from this page, and can be read in this PDF file.

Forward in Faith has published its submission to the Working Party on the Seal of the Confessional, which is charged with assisting the Archbishops’ Council and the House of Bishops in considering whether to recommend amendment of the Canon that says that priests should not reveal what has been disclosed in Confession by a penitent.

Forward in Faith’s submission points out that the sacraments belong to the whole Church, of which the Church of England is only part, and that the General Synod therefore does not have the authority to alter them. The obligation of non-disclosure is part of the nature of the Sacrament: it was not created by the Canon. Amending or repealing the Canon would therefore not remove it. We are confident that priests will continue to regard themselves as bound by the Seal of the Confessional, even if this canonical provision is amended or repealed.

We question whether, in any case, the necessity for such a change has been or can be made out.

Such a change would be undesirable and counterproductive. It would discourage people who have committed criminal offences from making their confession, reducing the likelihood of a priest being in a position to counsel them to report themselves to the Police. The time and energy expended in promoting such a controversial piece of legislation could be deployed more profitably in other ways.

Forward in Faith is concerned that many priests receive little or no training for the important ministry of reconciliation, which both the 1662 and Common Worship Ordinals identify as a fundamental aspect of priestly ministry. Such training should emphasize that, where a serious crime is confessed, absolution should be withheld until the penitent has reported him- or herself to the Police.

Forward in Faith understands the defence of the sacraments as part of its purpose, and we shall resist as strongly as we can any attack on the integrity of sacramental Confession.

The submission may be read here.

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Sam
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Sam

Hear hear. Well said, FiF.

Charles Read
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Charles Read

While I have much sympathy with the desire to defend what is often referred to as the Seal of the Confessional, this argument won’t work. Anglican theology does not recognise confession as a sacrament and so is going to say that it can be regulated by Canon. Pragmatically, I suspect some people will also look at some of our safeguarding disasters and wonder if the Seal of the Confessional might work to cover up such things – now I know that there is no evidence it was a factor in e.g. the Chichester problems, but we are very twitchy about… Read more »

Robin Ward
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Robin Ward

To answer Charles Read’s point directly, the submission notes on the first page the following: ‘the Convocations passed in 1959 a resolution reaffirming ‘as an essential principle of Church doctrine that if any person confess his secret and hidden sin to a priest for the unburdening of his conscience, and to receive spiritual consolation and absolution from him, such priest is strictly charged that he do not at any time reveal or make known to any person whatsoever any sin so committed to his trust and secrecy’ (emphasis added): H. Riley and R. J. Graham (eds), Acts of the Convocations… Read more »

Kelvin Holdsworth
Guest

The Scottish Episcopal Church’s canons are unambiguous on this matter. Canon 29 reads: 1. All priests who are eligible by reason of holding a pastoral charge in the Scottish Episcopal Church, or by permission granted by the Diocesan Bishop, shall make themselves available for the ministration of the Sacrament of Penance as may be convenient, and no priest may refuse to hear a confession unless able to direct the penitent to some other competent priest. 2. A priest may not divulge anything that has been revealed in Confession, nor refer subsequently to such matter without leave of the penitent. The… Read more »

Mark Bennet
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Mark Bennet

The question which perhaps needs to be addressed in relation to any change or not, is the question of the responsibility of a priest who pronounces absolution where this is unwarranted – for example, where there is an absence of penitence and contrition. Such a priest may be giving an offender tacit or explicit permission to continue offending. What happens if the “penitent” reveals – to a police officer, or to a priest – that this has happened? The confusion around “the Seal” may stem from the failure of those of us who are priests giving an inadequate public account… Read more »

rjb
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rjb

For once I find myself in full agreement with FIF. The solution to the problems arising from the Seal of the Confessional is better guidance for confessors, including training on the conditions under which absolution might legitimately be withheld. Compromising the relationship between the penitent and the confessor is clearly no way to resolve issues of ‘safeguarding’ and – more importantly – it gravely undermines the primary function of the Church in the world as a vessel of salvation for sinners.

Tim M
Guest
Tim M

I read the statement with interest. Still, it omits to offer a clear solution to the problem that a priest – as a representative of the church – potentially leaves children or vulnerable adults at risk of harm, because of non-disclosure under the Seal. This would not be tolerated in any lay or secular vocation.

Jo
Guest
Jo

” Anglican theology does not recognise confession as a sacrament “

Clearly, as Fr Kelvin has outlined, that rather depends on whose Anglican theology you are talking about.

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

As I said when this last came up, religious freedom isn’t absolute, and since the state has a compelling interest in bringing criminals to justice, the confessional seal should have exceptions, as does professional confidentiality in the fields of medicine and law. The only reason for keeping criminals’ secrets is to allow them to escape detection. That’s no reason at all. If a criminal wants absolution from a priest, all they have to do is turn themselves in, and they can receive it. If they stay on the lam, then they’ve waived absolution. Their choice. The absence of confession and… Read more »

Edward Prebble
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Edward Prebble

Perhaps Sam or RJB, or anyone from FIF can help me make explicit an issue that may or may not be implicit in FiF’s submission. Someone comes to me asking to make a confession, and admits to a crime. I instruct them to report the matter to the police. They refuse to do so. Of course I should not pronounce absolution. But am I free now to go to the police myself? I believe that I am, but the contrary view has been argued to me, that the seal of the confessional is not even broken by a “non-genuine” confession.… Read more »

Pluralist
Guest

I learnt that the right to confidentiality of an individual’s conversation with a Unitarian minister is recognised: the minister cannot be forced by the authorities to reveal matters given in confidence. So this confessional role is widespread and is more than about Anglican theology.

john holding
Guest
john holding

Surely the situatio is simple and clear: priests must not break the seal. But it is equally clear that the state has the right to charge them with breaking the law if it has reason to believe they are not reporting child abuse or something similar. And those clergy who rejoice in the fact that they have kept the seal, even at the cost of letting child abusers go free and continue to abuse, are presumably happy and proud to go to prison as a result.

JCF
Guest
JCF

I really doubt that few if any pedophile cover-up disasters can be held due to the Seal of the Confessional. It’s the VICTIMS not be heard/responded to, that’s the problem. The Power-Structure of clergy protecting their own, when presented w/ the testimony of the victims.

Being thoroughly riddled w/ sexism and built on patriarchy, I would never trust FiF to regulate itself re sexual abuse—but even they are capable of having, re the Seal, a “Broken Clock Moment”.

David Walker
Guest
David Walker

Whatever line we wish to take on the confessional seal has equally to cover the situations where the penitent is not the perpetrator, but is one of their victims, or a witness. And may well be themselves a child or vulnerable adult. Are we to keep silence whilst a prolific abuser continues to offend, because the penitent is scared of her dad being sent to prison, for example?

Father Ron Smith
Guest

Bishop David Walker has here presented one of the most compelling arguments for special circumstances regarding the ‘Seal of Confession’, that legitimately questions its moral validity. In the case he mentions, it surely behoves the priest to advise the victim making the confession of abuse to alert the authorities to what is happening. Another possibility is for the priest to confront the abuser (with the permission of the victim). This, of course, has its own risk. However, the biggest risk is for the victim to continue to be subjected to abuse.

Daniel Berry, NYC
Guest
Daniel Berry, NYC

Apropos of what Jo has posted, i.e., ” Anglican theology does not recognise confession as a sacrament “

Clearly, as Fr Kelvin has outlined, that rather depends on whose Anglican theology you are talking about.

…or WHICH Anglican theology you are talking about.

Reminds me of a story of a priest I once knew who was auditioning to be the rector of a parish. After they had seen him celebrate the eucharist, their feedback was, “Well, our services are more traditional.”

What on earth was THAT supposed to mean?

american piskie
Guest
american piskie

Well, looks like we’ll be jumping on a plane to fly up to Glasgow to make our confessions in future — bearing in mind always the reply of the Hebridean parish priest to the Cardinal Archbishop of Glasgow’s admonition to more frequent confession: “If it’s venial it isn’t worth the expense, and if it’s mortal it’s not worth the risk.”

Charles Read
Guest
Charles Read

Apologies for my being imprecise re sacraments above. I should have referred to Church of England theology and I am aware that there are faithful, CofE Anglicans who do regard e.g. marriage and penance as sacraments. Our formularies do not. I was not aware of the SEC Canons though and I am grateful to Kelvin for pointing them out. This is all a good example of doctrinal diversity and development within the Communion. Personally, I would have thought that REFORM ought to be jumping up and down over the number of sacraments but they seem to be ignorant of why… Read more »

Alastair Newman
Guest

The question for me is whether loosening the seal of the confession in extremis is about doing the right thing or about being seen to do the right thing. If it is only the latter, then I think the church should have nothing to do with it. If there is genuine evidence that allowing priests to break the seal will result in convictions or protection of children or other vulnerable persons then the Church should consider what if any change might be appropriate. Note: consider!

David Walker’s point is important too.

Jeremy
Guest
Jeremy

“Forward in Faith’s submission points out that the sacraments belong to the whole Church, of which the Church of England is only part, and that the General Synod therefore does not have the authority to alter them.” So how, in FiF’s view, does “the whole Church” alter a sacrament? Or is FiF’s real point that the sacraments are, by definition, unalterable? And how would such a claim stand up under historical analysis? . . . Let me also ask a hypothetical: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” “How have you sinned?” “I’m a bank robber. I rob banks to… Read more »

Leon Clarke
Guest
Leon Clarke

FiF does point out that the priest is perfectly at liberty (according to normal doctrines as they understand them) to withhold absolution until the penitent has handed themselves in to the police. Assuming that priests and criminals are all educated that this is the case, and furthermore that there’s a large and clearly defined area where safeguarding rules require that this happens, this solves MOST problems. People who aren’t truly penitent won’t go to priests to confess, and priests will efficiently help the truly penitent go to the police. This is compatible with traditional doctrines and with safeguarding rules. The… Read more »

Mark Bennet
Guest
Mark Bennet

David Walker raises an important point about those who are or have been abused. One of key messages in a lot of safeguarding training these days is “never promise to keep a secret”. There are things to be done in such circumstances when a disclosure is made, but also things to be done if a vulnerable person walks away rather than speak. Is there an account of the promise to keep a secret which will stand up to the painful learning we’ve done over recent years? To Charles Read’s point and others on the sacraments I would add that the… Read more »

Rosemary Hannah
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Rosemary Hannah

The traditional answer to planned crimes, and indeed to unreported crimes, is that if the penitent is the perpetrator, then absolution is not granted without confession to the civil authorities. Nobody can be absolved of a sin they intend to commit anyhow.

If the victim is the penitent then tact and persuasion are needed, not a betrayal of a confidence.

Kelvin Holdsworth
Guest

The example above from the Scottish Episcopal Church is not really an example of the development of doctrine in the Communion.

It is an example of the doctrine (or perhaps more accurately the praxis) of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

If individuals in the C of E want to jump up and down to insist that penance isn’t a sacrament, I am in no position to stop them. They should, however, be made aware, that it is their doing so which is a novelty and a doctrinal development.

Adrian Judd
Guest
Adrian Judd

I might not agree with everything that FiF stand for, but I welcome the diversity of opinion that is brought by their existence, and the effect that diversity has on the C of E.

Rowan (not that Rowan)
Guest
Rowan (not that Rowan)

I don’t know that one can link any abuse cover-ups specifically to the Seal of the Confessional, but there are a great deal of cases I am personally aware of in my diocese where priests have made some sort of confession of abuse to a senior colleague and it has been treated as some sort of pastoral issue to be dealt with quietly, and latterly justified as having been a sacramental confession, because the abuse was historic or they were really very sorry about it or whatever other nonsense.

Susannah Clark
Guest

I am astonished. I had no idea that someone could confess a heinous crime, and the priest might not report it to the authorities. Definitely, if someone seeks absolution for a crime they have already been tried and punished for – then I’d agree that the priest could offer confidentiality in most (but not all) cases. But if an individual confesses a heinous crime – an assault, a murder, a sex offence… then there should be a professional obligation for the priest to report that individual to the authorities, so that they may be fairly called to account. Anything else… Read more »

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

David Walker, there should be a consistent standard to break the seal of the confessional, a standard that applies regardless of whether the penitent is a criminal or a victim: based on what’s been revealed, is there reasonable cause to believe that a serious crime has been committed? If yes, end the confession, inform the penitent what’s happening, and report the crime to the authorities. Why should it apply regardless of the penitent’s status? Because crimes aren’t torts: they’re wrongs against all of society, and leaving criminals at liberty endangers us all. I’m accept that my position goes too far… Read more »

Eric MacDonald
Guest
Eric MacDonald

Jeremy, in your example, there is no confession, for a confession is made with the express purpose of acknowledging a fault, and expressing contriteness and a willingness to mend one’s ways. What the person in your example does is to convey information, which, presumably, the priest is at liberty to convey to the relevant authorities.

Dennis
Guest
Dennis

Do psychotherapists in England have expectations of confidentiality? I’m a clinical psychologist licensed in two states in the US. Based on federal and state law, board regulations and professional ethical codes I explain to each new patient that what we discuss is confidential except in a few situations. These include danger to self or others (plans to go commit suicide or commit a violent crime against others) abuse of a minor (physical, sexual, abandonment, endangerment, etc) or older adult (over 65) or someone with a disability. In those cases I’m a “mandated reporter.” I’ve had to make those reports, but… Read more »

Sara MacVane
Guest
Sara MacVane

There’s an old Hitchcock film, called “Priest” I seem to remember, where an RC priest hears the confession of a murderer and then is accused of the crime himself, but doesn’t break the seal. All comes right in the end of course.

Robin Ward
Guest
Robin Ward

The seal of the confessional applies if a person comes to confess seeking absolution. Even if absolution is withheld, the seal applies. So the suggestion that if the person does not agree to hand themselves over to the civil authorities they are not penitent and so aren’t making a real confession and aren’t protected by the seal is wrong. They may be prompted by fear, concern for the consequences for other innocent people, or reluctance to accept an unjust punishment. That does not mean they should be absolved anyway, but it does not release the priest from the seal. It… Read more »

Judith Maltby
Guest
Judith Maltby

This is a very complex and serious matter and it is in that spirit I raise these questions. Did the group drafting the FinF statement meet with survivors of abuse, especially of clerical abuse, as part of their process of reflection for producing the report? The report suggests (18) that reform of the type being discussed of the Seal would result in fewer cases of abuse being reported. Can we know the research based evidence on which this claim is based? As a contribution to this important debate, would FinF publish the bibliography behind the report as a resource to… Read more »

Kate
Guest
Kate

If you read the 1603 Canon then penitence is not a requirement for the Seal to lock on. Only two things are required (simplifying a bit):

1. An unburdening, and
2. A wish for spiritual consolation

So, as I read the Canon, someone who regrets their conduct but has not yet reached a state a penitence is protected because they are seeking reassurance that through Christ God can forgive their conduct when they do repent. Confession can be a step to reaching penitence which is why it is essential the Seal is NEVER broken.

Kate
Guest
Kate

Against Jeremy’s example, we should set another: Forgive me father for I have sinned. How have you sinned? I have given succour to an illegal immigrant but not reported him to the authorities. So a crime has been committed but it is hard to detect any crime against the Covenant of the Lord. Does the Seal apply in this case and, if the Seal is allowed to become less than absolute, where would the protection lie for priests who do not report crimes confessed even where the “sinner” has not broken the Covenant directly? Those who believe crimes can be… Read more »

Kate
Guest
Kate

Sorry for a third comment but can I extol the standard of comments below the earlier TA article to which Simon linked which raise points which have not come up in the comments on this piece yet. Father Ron Smith at the end drew attention to an article in the Tablet about a partnered gay man being denied absolution. Formally, although most here would disagree, a lack of celibacy in a gay relationship is against church teaching. To use a less inflammatory example, so is “living in sin” – cohabitation before marriage. So, by the arguments some have raised above… Read more »

Fr Alan
Guest
Fr Alan

I am grateful for Kate’s comments and also find some of the points made on the previous thread persuasive. I do not identify with nearly all the categorisation of priest and priesthood lying behind much of the thinking and comments here. The person and office of the priest are part of the living and breathing presence of God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness when people come to seek His love and reconciliation. The priest is that love, living and breathing, the presence of Christ himself in the depth of despair and brokenness bringing God’s healing to those who have come to… Read more »

Tobias Haller
Guest
Tobias Haller

It is likely useful to distinguish between the category “sin” and the category “crime.” It might also be helpful, in the latter category, to recall the principle of the right to freedom from self-incrimination. (This is coming from an American; I do not know if the English law provides similar protection; but I think it a useful principle in this case, as the confessor is not a witness to a crime, but could only attest to hearsay, even if it is in the first person, and accepted by the confessor as true.) It seems to me these distinctions might ease… Read more »

Mark Bennet
Guest
Mark Bennet

It is perhaps worth noting Canon B16 (Church of England) in this respect, which reads as follows: B 16 Of notorious offenders not to be admitted to Holy Communion 1. If a minister be persuaded that anyone of his cure who presents himself to be a partaker of the Holy Communion ought not to be admitted thereunto by reason of malicious and open contention with his neighbours, or other grave and open sin without repentance, he shall give an account of the same to the bishop of the diocese or other the Ordinary of the place and therein obey his… Read more »

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

Tobias,
thank you for that.
You say you are troubled by the tension between the tradition of the seal and the gravity of some offenses that have gone unaddressed because of this.
Do we actually know this happened and that it happened often?
Is it possible to quantify this at all? Or is it more a hypothetical worry?

Kate
Guest
Kate

Tobias

We must however be careful with “crime”. While the much-used example of child abuse is obvious, what instead of an Anglican priest in Uganda who heard confession of an homosexual encounter? That is a crime carrying a life-tariff. Should he then report that serious crime? I think most people here would want him to preserve the Seal of Confession.

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

Tobias, English law, like the law of any democratic nation I can think of, prevents people from being *compelled* to incriminate themselves. This has no relevance to a person who chooses to confesses, and voluntary confessions are longstanding exceptions to the hearsay rule. Robin, your comparison between reporting abusers, and reporting gay people, collapses on the specifics. The criminalization of child molestation has substantial and compelling justification, supported by a ton of evidence of harm. There’s zero prospect that we’re gonna change our minds on this. Just because one law was unjust, it isn’t license to disregard another, wholly unrelated,… Read more »

Savi Hensman
Guest
Savi Hensman

Kate makes some important points. Priests giving absolution too easily has been a problem in the past, but ending this is very different from removing the seal of the confessional. That would be highly unlikely to protect children at risk: if confession were regarded primarily as a session with a professional expected to report serious crimes, few if any people would confess to such acts if unwilling to have this information passed on to the police. On the contrary, the chance of persuading abusers to turn themselves in would be lost. As for the idea that victims not yet ready… Read more »

Alastair Newman
Guest

“The criminalization of child molestation has substantial and compelling justification”

But the Ugandans presumably feel that criminalisation of homosexuality has substantial and compelling justification. And would also say that causes harm.

“if confession were regarded primarily as a session with a professional expected to report serious crimes, few if any people would confess to such acts if unwilling to have this information passed on to the police.”

No, indeed, unless the penitent were duped into thinking the confession was being made in confidence when in fact it wasn’t. Is deception something we should be encouraging?

Kate
Guest
Kate

James I don’t think it does collapse on the specifics. In this country one hopes all priests would see child abuse as inherently wrong but, as is often discussed on TA, many Ugandan priests think homosexuality is inherently wrong. If one narrows ones focus to England only (ie CofE rather than Anglicanism) then yes the specific example of homosexuality fails but the underlying point that the Seal has relevance against unjust laws or state caprice remains of course. Even in the UK one can still imagine situations involving whistleblowers in which Christian morality and secular law will,pull in very different… Read more »

Fr Alan
Guest

Adultery remains illegal in some countries and laws criminalising adulterers remain on the books in many states in the USofA. There is ample evidence to demonstrate the harm caused by adultery ……. I’m sorry, this whole debate is flawed. If the sacrament is to be practiced it must remain sacrosanct. If some other advice service is to be made available, then clergy need to be trained and qualified to provide that service. There is no evidence to suggest that a single act of betrayal and abuse could have been stopped by a priest revealing the secrets of the confession. I… Read more »

Tobias Haller
Guest
Tobias Haller

Erika, I don’t know how often it may happen. That it has happened, however, I do not doubt. The controversial film _Priest_ from a few years back addressed and portrayed the tension I’m describing. Kate, this neatly describes the tension, too. Can a general principle, beyond “never break the seal” be applied, or is this an ad hoc decision on the basis of the confessor’s judgment? The tradition, and the canons (on both sides of the briny) say the absolute rule applies; but it is under challenge. Hence the dilemma and discussion. My distinction about “sin” and “crime” is simply… Read more »

Kate
Guest
Kate

May I thank Fr Alan for expressing the nature of priesthood so eloquently

Anne
Guest
Anne

My real concern is for the victim of abuse who talks about that abuse in the context of confession (there is no guilt in being the victim, of course, but it may come up as part of a longer story the person needs to tell about their life). What is the priest’s responsibility in that case? It may be that we know the abuser is still out there and may have access to other children. My other query to those for whom formal confession is a more regular part of the church’s life than it is in my church. Presumably… Read more »

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

Tobias, in those jurisdictions where it exists, confessions are an exception to the hearsay rule, and are absolutely evidence of a crime. It happens every time a police officer repeats under oath statements a suspect made during interrogation. This is black-letter law. In many jurisdictions, a third party repeating a voluntary confession would be sufficient evidence to imprison someone for the rest of their days. Let’s sing Miranda and its equivalents together: Anything you say can, and will, be used against you in a court of law. As for trying to brush this aside with relativism, please. It could equally… Read more »