Thinking Anglicans

Safeguarding and the Seal of the Confessional

Updated see below the fold

Following on from a Facebook discussion initiated yesterday by Robin Ward and a blog article at Archbishop Cranmer there have been several mainstream media reports of the guidance issued by the Diocese of Canterbury relating to this topic.

The original guidance which was published in 2015, so not a new development, can be found here. The relevant section is on page 33.

The contentious wording is this:

Any priest hearing a confession, regularly or otherwise, must say prior to hearing that confession the following statement of confidentiality and safeguarding:

“If you touch on any matter in your confession that raises a concern about the wellbeing or safeguarding of another person or yourself, I am duty bound to pass that information on to the relevant agencies, which means that I am unable to keep such information confidential.”

The diocese issued a clarification yesterday in response to media queries: Confession & safeguarding.

“Safeguarding children and vulnerable adults must be our highest priority and is at the heart of all our responsibilities,” said Julian Hills, Diocesan Secretary. “While there have been only a tiny number of criminal cases in which the seal of the confession has been in issue, it is unclear whether a criminal court would favour the responsibility to protect someone from abuse or the requirement of a priest to maintain confidentiality. The decision to issue this guidance arose out of a genuine situation where, during confession, a penitent shared with a priest information about ongoing abuse. In this case, the legal and moral position of the priest was called into question. It was therefore felt by the Diocesan Safeguarding Management Group that clergy must have clear guidance on how to manage situations where the seal of confession may be brought into conflict with their safeguarding responsibilities.

“This guidance has not – as some have claimed – ‘abolished the Seal of the Confessional.’ Rather, it is intended to advise the penitent not to divulge in confession something which would legally compromise the position of the priest – and therefore require that priest to choose between their responsibility to protect someone from harm and the usual requirement of confidentiality.

“The guidance was drafted in early 2015, after seeking independent legal advice and in consultation with the then Acting Head of Delivery for the National Safeguarding Team. We understand that this issue is being considered nationally and that it is due to be discussed by the House of Bishops in December.”

Media reports:

Archbishop Cranmer CofE: ‘Come and confess your sins, but we might have to report you to the police’

Church Times Our confessional guidance is not uncanonical, Canterbury diocese says

Christian Today Church accused of breaking canon law by ordering priests to report abuse heard in confession box

Telegraph Christians told not to confess sex abuse secrets to Church of England clergy because they will tell the police

The Times (£) Don’t report abuse during confession, Church warns

This topic has been discussed extensively on Thinking Anglicans in recent years. Here are links to our previous articles:

  • Tuesday, 28 October 2014 Seal of the Confessional. Note that links to CofE documents in that post are broken, because of the way in which that website was rebuilt last year. The key document, GS Misc 1085 has now moved to here.

Update

Forward in Faith has issued this statement: The Diocese of Canterbury and the Seal of the Confessional.

The Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy issued in 2015 by the Convocations of Canterbury and York state (in para. 3.5): ‘If a penitent makes a confession with the intention of receiving absolution the priest is forbidden (by the unrepealed Proviso to Canon 113 of the Code of 1603) to reveal or make known to any person what has been confessed. This requirement of absolute confidentiality applies even after the death of the penitent.’

However, the Bishop of Dover has issued the following instruction to clergy in the Diocese of Canterbury and the Deaneries of Guernsey and Jersey: ‘The Bishop emphasises that… Any priest hearing a confession, regularly or otherwise, must say prior to hearing that confession the following statement of confidentiality and safeguarding: “If you touch on any matter in your confession that raises a concern about the wellbeing or safeguarding of another person or yourself, I am duty bound to pass that information on to the relevant agencies, which means that I am unable to keep such information confidential.” ‘ Incredibly, the Diocese of Canterbury has denied that this instruction – which is cast in very wide terms indeed – has effectively ‘abolished the Seal of the Confessional’.

Forward in Faith’s position remains as set out in 2015 in our submission to the working party on the seal of the confessional: we will resist as strongly as we can any attack on the integrity of sacramental Confession.

For a diocese to pre-empt synodical discussion of whether any aspect of ecclesiastical law should be changed is unacceptable. Forward in Faith calls for urgent action to bring the Diocese of Canterbury and the Channel Islands deaneries back into conformity with canon law and with the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy so recently issued by the members of the Houses of Bishops and Clergy in the provincial Convocations. If the Diocese of Canterbury is allowed to continue publicly to incite the clergy to breach canon law, that will set a very worrying precedent.

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TJ McMahon
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TJ McMahon

Admittedly, I come from that side of the Church that considers Roman Catholicism to be rather too Protestant, but… ““If you touch on any matter in your confession that raises a concern about the wellbeing or safeguarding of another person or yourself,…” Can someone please name any sin that does not impact the “wellbeing” of another person? What we are left to confess is limited to “secretly worship Babylonian gods” and “occasionally lock myself in a soundproof room and take the Lord’s name in vain.” This guidance effectively eliminates the confessional altogether. Have the Archbishop and his staff been reported… Read more »

Kate
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Kate

There is so much about confession which is totally alien to my faith but this guidance is duplicitous. The archbishop and bishops surely know that those priests most likely to offer confession will not, under any circumstances, break the seal. Although the guidance pretends to protect priests it cynically does the opposite. If a priest hears an allegation of abuse and doesn’t report it the bishops and diocese can now wash their hands and say that they are blameless – they told priests not to put themselves in that position. I am afraid this is consistent with what we keep… Read more »

Savi Hensman
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Savi Hensman

I would have thought that a conversation held under these circumstances could not be regarded as confession, since the person attending would be encouraged not to bring before God, for healing and forgiveness, anything touching on wellbeing or safety which he or she would not yet be willing to share with the authorities. Such a policy might actually assist abuse, by helping to silence victims who might be empowered to speak up, if able initially to talk through their concerns confidentially. In addition it might deter abusers from going to confession and there being persuaded to go to the police… Read more »

James Byron
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James Byron

So, from one extreme to the other.

I’ve said before on here that the seal should be broken if the penitent confesses to a serious crime and refuses to turn themselves in: but that narrow exception’s a world away from the vague, sweeping language used here.

Far as safeguarding’s concerned, the church blunders from misjudgment to misjudgment.

Jeremy
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Jeremy

Some jurisdictions—not England—have statutes that protect the clerical-penitent privilege, and that even clarify whether mandatory reporting takes precedence, or not. I think this privilege generally should be protected, because otherwise people will only have their lawyers to turn to. And that’s expensive. The upshot would be that the wealthy have confidentiality, and everyone else does not. As for which should take precedence, mandatory reporting or the penitent privilege, I do not know, and would leave that to legislators to figure out. But it would be good if those charged with writing laws could write one on this issue. That way… Read more »

crs
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crs

One supposes that just this public announcement will have the effect of assuring no one who has committed such acts will head to the confessional, so the rather awkward prolegomena is unlikely to unfold in real time. As someone has said this could effectively mean that from here on out we cannot truthfully refer to what has been referred to as “confession” any longer on those terms. I cannot know how widespread the practice of private confession is, but however wide, this will probably have a chilling effect more broadly. If an abuser entered the confessional and confessed this sin,… Read more »

Interested Observer
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Interested Observer

“If you touch on any matter in your confession that raises a concern about the wellbeing or safeguarding of another person or yourself” OK, let’s try that one on for size. Someone goes to a priest and confesses that they sometimes have sexual thoughts about children, upon which they do not act or intend to act, but when they do they hate themselves for this to the point that sometimes they think of suicide, although they have neither attempted nor prepared for it. This is hardly a wild edge case, I suspect. Does this fall into “raises a concern?” Dead… Read more »

Pat O'Neill
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Pat O'Neill

In most US jurisdictions, the cleric/penitent privilege in the courts is protected. A cleric cannot be forced to be a witness to what he/she was told in confession…provided it is a true confession. For example, there cannot be a third person present…and there must be a real cleric/penitent relationship. For example, a committed atheist cannot confess to a priest and expect confidentiality.

A similar one exists between doctors and patients, especially mental health doctors…EXCEPT where a crime is mentioned or the health/wellbeing of a third person is threatened. Perhaps a similar exception should be made for the religious protection.

Mark Bennet
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Mark Bennet

I am not sure that the analysis so far really shows what is at stake here, or what the problems may be. It is, of course, possible for anyone to keep a confidence at the risk of criminal sanction – and a priest could do the same and face the consequences. This is, in fact, potentially harder (indirectly) for Church of England Clergy to claim this of right given Article 37 “Of the Civil Magistrates” – I don’t know enough law or history really to comment, but the jurisdiction of the civil courts was one aspect of the formation of… Read more »

Kate
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Kate

I don’t think you can resolve this by telling priests it’s only very serious crimes they must report or passing a law to clarify matters. Theologically the seal of the confession, as I understand it, needs to be absolute. I think those of us who do not partake of confession should still stand firm alongside those priests who do. In English law, even those who confess heinous crimes are entitled to a legal defence. I see the right to confidentiality of confession in the same terms. Granting basic human rights even to criminals is foundational to a fair and just… Read more »

Stanley Monkhouse
Guest

There’s an obvious answer: ‘telescreens’ in places of confession, and ‘thinkpol’. Screens could be monitored in diocesan offices by the same people that monitor screens in vicarage bedrooms (the pleasure police, ‘pleaspol’ in Orwellian). These are, of course, anti-hankypany devices to help identify clergy indulging in genital activity that is not approved by Episcopal fiat. Come to think of it, these screens should not be confined to vicarage bedrooms …

Michael Mulhern
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Michael Mulhern

So… the Diocesan Secretary and Diocesan Safeguarding Team are now the arbiters of faith and order, are they? This really is a complete shambles. Once again, the theologians don’t get a look in, let alone the bishops as those who determine matters of faith and order. Panic follows panic. If I were a priest in the Canterbury Diocese, I would simply ignore this ‘advice.’ The legal provisions are absolutely clear, and they can only be changed by Synodical and Parliamentary process. What’s the betting that neither the Diocesan Secretary or the members of the DST have any first-hand experience of… Read more »

Marshall Scott
Guest

Per Sibling Jeremy: “That way everyone will know ex ante what the rules are.” Absolutely – especially when we’re not making the rules. There are jurisdictions in the United States with legal protection for the seal of the confessional, except in the instance of physical or sexual abuse of a child. So, the rule is that, while the Church will not require a priest break the seal, it also cannot protect that priest from going to jail for contempt of court. Indeed, with (at least the US) experience of church leaders protecting perpetrators, that is even more likely to be… Read more »

Anne Lee
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Anne Lee

“This guidance has not – as some have claimed – ‘abolished the Seal of the Confessional.’ Rather, it is intended to advise the penitent not to divulge in confession something which would legally compromise the position of the priest – and therefore require that priest to choose between their responsibility to protect someone from harm and the usual requirement of confidentiality.” Thank you Savi for your wise words. Surely no priest would be able to offer absolution if a criminal (and possibly ongoing) action was involved. I had understood that in the event of somebody confessing to eg sexually abusing… Read more »

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

“This is a case where risk aversion is destructive.”

Risk aversion’s exactly what this is about: the CoE’s effectively abolished the seal of the confessional to cover itself in case anyone sues over disclosures. Theology written by insurers, for insurers.

It is making me seriously rethink my support for a narrow exemption in cases of confessions to serious crimes.

Interested Observer
Guest
Interested Observer

“The Church cannot knowingly allow confessed abuse to continue”

Let us accept that that is true in spirit; we can quibble about the wording, but I think the sentiment is something we would probably agree with.

How wide do you think the gap is between “knowingly allow confessed abuse to continue” and “raises a concern about the wellbeing or safeguarding of another person or yourself”? What could you get between those two statements? A cigarette paper? A coach and horses? An ocean liner?

Will Richards
Guest
Will Richards

There is much opining on here by people who have no experience of the confessional, just as those who admit they never use it (Rupert Bursell and Linda Woodhead, for example) have been using their positions to pronounce in favour of the abolition of the Seal. As has been asked repeatedly before, where – in the Church of England, specifically – is the evidence that decisively proves that the confessional has been used as a means of covering-up abuse? It is significant that the Truro review, published this week, makes absolutely no mention of it. Without wishing to sound like… Read more »

Kate
Guest
Kate

We have Nye, on instruction from the Archbishop of Canterbury, telling TEC that it is appalling that they have acted unilaterally and broken with tradition while simultaneously Canterbury themselves break with tradition and act unilaterally.

Sam
Guest
Sam

One of the challenges here is that there have been a lot of incidents of sexual abuse covered up by senior clergy, and these are being conflated with the confessional. Senior clergy rarely if ever hear their own priests’ confessions (and rightly so), and they are rarely if ever put into writing. So any incident where a bishop is seen to have covered up sexual abuse, or where records have been destroyed, would not possibly fall under the seal of the confessional anyway.

Anthony Archer
Guest
Anthony Archer

Seriously on message comment in a letter to The Times today: A PRIEST’S ROLE Sir, The practice of allowing Anglican priests to warn those who come to them for confession not to disclose matters the priest may have a legal duty to report is a further indication of how little the church has learnt from recent disclosures (News, May 31). From the church’s point of view, has no one questioned the value of an absolution pronounced in response to a “confession” made by a “penitent” under such circumstances? To those of us who have had to deal with the consequences… Read more »

Graham Hardy
Guest
Graham Hardy

Retired Judge Peter Murphy clearly doesn’t understand the theology and practice of sacramental confessional – and neither, I fear, does Anthony Archer. That is why lawyers should be wary of meddling in theology, because they resort to clear-cut categories of black-and-white, and a tendency to caricature. Could I ask, in the absence of any clear evidence to endorse the ill-informed comments from judges (and others) linking confession in the Church of England to the cover-up of abuse, that when commenting on this topic, people actually say if they have any experience of the confessional at all? What we are getting… Read more »

Liam Beadle
Guest
Liam Beadle

I think Anthony Archer has misunderstood. It is the Diocese of Canterbury which has required clergy to advise penitents to keep the sin of abuse to themselves, and not to put clergy in a compromised position by mentioning it. Given that is an invitation (a) to cover-up that which must, for the sake of the targets and victims of abuse, be uncovered, and also (b) to make a partial, and therefore inadequate, confession, to say “The Diocese of Canterbury is taking a welcome lead” would seem to contradict the whole point of Peter Murphy’s letter, which is that the requirement… Read more »

Savi Hensman
Guest
Savi Hensman

Anthony, current advice to Church of England clergy is, I believe, that an abuser unwilling to go to the police should not be given absolution. The Canterbury position might result in abusers either failing to mention what they did or steering clear of confession, unless they were anyway ready to turn themselves in. So opportunities to persuade them would be lost, along with the chance of providing care and support to survivors not yet ready to report. It would surely be better to improve systems and training so that those in church leadership positions responded effectively to disclosures of abuse… Read more »

John U.K.
Guest
John U.K.

Graham Hardy (3rd.June,7.40am) is right: there is a lack of understanding of this ministry, commonly known as the the sacrament of confession/penance/reconciliation. Colloquially referred to as confession *to* a priest, it is actually confession to God, in the hearing of a priest. The actual confession usually begins along these lines: “I confess to God almighty, and *before* the Blessed Virgin Mary . . . and all the angels and saints, and you, father, that . . . [here the penitent confesses his/her sins” and concludes ” . . . and all the other sins I cannot now remember. Wherefore I… Read more »

John U.K.
Guest
John U.K.

[Continued….] A couple of further points. It is generally reckoned that 1)The penitent should make a full and frank confession of all sins remembered as committed since the previous confession. 2) The penitent must be sincere in his sorrow and show this by endeavouring to right wrongs done to others wherever possible. 3) Where there is doubt about the penitent’s sincerity, the priest may withold absolution or make it conditional on such restitution ( a working-out of Matt.16, 19 & John.20, 22-23). — So, what is the practical effect of the advice either for the priest to tell the penitent… Read more »

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

An inconsequential tangent, but since older posts have been linked, I’d just like to clarify that, as a direct result of this debacle, I’ve now changed my mind on priest-penitent privilege, so previous comments no longer reflect my current views. My thanks to those who argued against my previous position: you’ve helped me reassess it, and your warnings have proved correct. Mea culpa.

Interested Observer
Guest
Interested Observer

“These have not generally been connected with confidentiality during confession but rather matters brought to bishops’ and other clergy’s attention”

I suspect that in the past, there was a rather cosy club atmosphere which held that all communication between bishop and clergy, concerning anything more sensitive than the lunch menu, was held to be in some sense privileged. So the problem with defending the seal of the confessional is that it also acts as a proxy for other forms of opacity.

Marshall Scott
Guest

Another note from the US experience: in a number of cases when senior Roman Catholic clergy were confronted with not addressing abuse publically, and so possibly allowing it to continue, part of the defense was that it had been addressed in the confessional, and the abuser was trusted to have actually committed to amendment of life. All too often that did not prove true: life was not amended. Unfortunately, pardon had already been declared, and the confessional closed; and the senior cleric said he felt he could not confront because of the seal. I have both made my confession and… Read more »

Will Richards
Guest
Will Richards

Anthony Archer is clearly not a regular sacramental penitent, otherwise he would not come to superficial conclusions like ‘Canterbury is taking a lead.’ What Canterbury’s DST and Diocesan Secretary is advising will simply push the abusers further below the radar. Their approach is all about insurance claims and headlines, and very little about enabling the abused to be confident enough to disclose abuse; or to robustly challenge the stance of the abuser. To repeat Graham Hardy’s plea, will those who have no experience of sacramental confession, either as priests or penitents, please stop grandstanding about it until you (a) have… Read more »

Anthony Archer
Guest
Anthony Archer

There seem to be differing views on the correctness and/or practicality of the Diocese of Canterbury’s advice to clergy. I happen to believe that it is helpful in clarifying that clergy should not and cannot be put in a position where the seal of confession is brought into direct conflict with their safeguarding responsibilities. Chancellor Rupert Bursell QC, a former judge, respected ecclesiastical lawyer and ordained Church of England priest, has gone further in a letter to The Times today in saying that if the law does in fact recognise the privilege between priest and ‘penitent’ (akin to lawyer/client privilege)… Read more »

David Runcorn
Guest
David Runcorn

I am a priest with experience of sacramental confession but I do not think that lawyers are only capable of ‘meddling’ with theology or that Anthony Archer and others who may not be from catholic sacramental tradition lack, by default, any wisdom to bring to this discussion. Nor do I think that experienced confessors are never misled by those who simply hide or deny their sins while sounding deeply penitent. Indeed one of the features of some abusers is the way they have split off that part of their life and so to live at other times in an actual… Read more »