Tuesday, 28 October 2014

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.

Posted by Peter Owen on Tuesday, 28 October 2014 at 11:53am GMT | TrackBack
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Comments

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 another attempt by militant evangelicals (like the no vestments motion) to erode the integrity and centrality of sacramental ministry. I hope enough people in Synod and the HoB will see this for what it is.

Posted by: Matthew Duckett on Tuesday, 28 October 2014 at 12:37pm GMT

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 to underestimate the extent to which the Church of England is determined to transform itself into a liberal Protestant sect.

Posted by: rjb on Tuesday, 28 October 2014 at 12:52pm GMT

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 pronounce Absolution, by the authority and commandment of God. Any spiritual counsel is an added bonus (but doubtless highly worthwhile!). Only God knows what has been confessed, since confession is made to God. The priest as a human does not, as a matter of spiritual fact, know what has been confessed, and so cannot reveal what has been said. Anyone who reveals a confession therefore denies the spiritual fact of their ordination, hence the penalty of deposition enjoined in such cases is only confirming what the priest has already enacted.

Posted by: Bernard Randall on Tuesday, 28 October 2014 at 2:56pm GMT

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

Posted by: Jean Mayland (Revd) on Tuesday, 28 October 2014 at 5:34pm GMT

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 behind the theological niceties that they thought they were taught at theological college. PS Does anyone go to confession these days? Those with weighty matters on their conscience will need to wake up to the fact that God is a righteous God and while he may forgive them their sins and remember them no more it will not remove any need for justice on earth.

Posted by: Anthony Archer on Tuesday, 28 October 2014 at 8:04pm GMT

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 to report themselves to the police. Herein remains the anomoly. When is the civil law also God's inexorable Law?

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Tuesday, 28 October 2014 at 10:37pm GMT

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 the police, they would be unlikely to mention it in confession. If the C of E really wanted to protect children rather than deterring people from going to confession, it could instead make sure its own child protection procedures functioned properly, work for changes in public attitudes and ensure that social services were properly resourced.

Posted by: Savi Hensman on Tuesday, 28 October 2014 at 10:46pm GMT

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/

Posted by: Peter Owen on Tuesday, 28 October 2014 at 11:17pm GMT

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] that he do not at any time reveal...").

As has been said, the priest can withhold Absolution, but only on the grounds that a person is not truly penitent - and refusing to go to the police might be rather strong evidence of a lack of true penitence. But that is the only condition, and one can imagine a situation where penitence is genuine but it isn't possible to go to the authorities - a death-bed confession would be one such.

Posted by: Bernard Randall on Wednesday, 29 October 2014 at 9:31am GMT

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.

Posted by: Anthony Archer on Wednesday, 29 October 2014 at 9:44am GMT

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 party is finding, child abuse is a cancer: it eats away at decent people trying to behave decently, and leaves systems and processes that ought to provide support for victims and justice towards perpetrators fatally compromised. If the CofE goes to the political mats to defend a position which boils down to "this will make life harder for child abusers to receive the sacraments of the church", it will lose vast amounts of public sympathy. 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. It will read like a church which is more concerned about the souls of rapists than about the safety of their victims, and in 2014 that is an utterly unsustainable position.

Posted by: Interested Observer on Wednesday, 29 October 2014 at 10:05am GMT

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 Court Justices ought to be able to get their heads around it.

Posted by: Bernard Randall on Wednesday, 29 October 2014 at 12:06pm GMT

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 by the way confession has come to function culturally.

Commentary (whether or not accurate) on the social/cultural meaning of confession can be found in books like Alan Bennett"s "The Laying on of Hands" or "Death in Holy Orders" by PD James or the film Priest. Defending confession theologically is unlikely to meet the case, but taking away "the seal of the confessional" will do little on its own to challenge toxic culture where it exists. Also some might still consider themselves bound by this tradition, and be prepared to face trial and prison in the face of challenge - this would undermine the symbolic effect of any change "on paper".

Refusal to give absolution is the proper course for a priest in the envisaged circumstances, but of course priests are sinners too, so there is no perfect answer.

Posted by: Mark Bennet on Wednesday, 29 October 2014 at 1:51pm GMT

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 guess (and it's only that) is that few abusers are seeking confession and absolution. Those who do may well respond to us.

The second has to do with priests being subject to law. In the United States I'm not aware of any state where the seal of the confessional is explicitly protected in otherwise required reporting legislation - or, for that matter, in any legal challenge to professional confidence. At that point, the point of the priest's subjection to the law may be expressed as clearly in accepting the consequences of silence in the face of the law (citation for contempt; accepting jail) as with any other act of civil disobedience.

It isn't a choice I've had to make; and any who might have had to make it may not feel they can speak to it. I know what *I think* I would do; but I'm not at this point going to make any claim beyond that.

Posted by: Marshall Scott on Wednesday, 29 October 2014 at 2:49pm GMT

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 years of "proper teaching" a parish I was associated with had only 3 penitents out of 300+ and they were irregular. Many of my fellow AC priests had ceased or never begun seeking the benefits of this wonderful, healing sacrament.

It is too little used to be of any major significance, then or now and one does wonder if this is in fact why we are seeing this sudden focus upon it and by some, one suspects,who have little use for it themselves despite their obvious experience of the extraordinary grace it manifests.

A more cynical observer might suspect that this is a distraction from looking at the whole historical context of the abuse, seeing how institutions like the church, police and judiciary closed ranks to protect their own and did everything they could to bury scandal and preserve their public image and mystique.
The church had a thousand years of history protecting its priests from civil prosecution. It is hard to fathom now, but that need to protect the innocence of society from knowing what their elders and betters got up to was seen by many as key to the sustaining of the influence and authority of these pillars of our society.
And maybe they had a point!
Look at the collapse in the RC church in Ireland as the don't tell policy imploded.
I think the planned exploration announced at Synod is a complete waste of resources.
It complies with a Sun/Daily Mail view of "confession" and has no potential to save one child from the evil of abuse.
It is too serious to joke about, but I can see a cartoon in the Church Times where the priest sits in the old fashioned double confessional box with a place for penitent on wither side and over the left position is a sign saying
"Offences with a tariff of less than 5 years"
While the right station has a sign saying
"Over 5 year"
Standing next to the right hand station is a policeman with a listening device and a pair of handcuffs.

Posted by: Martin Reynolds on Wednesday, 29 October 2014 at 3:52pm GMT

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 the absolute confidentiality is also in the opposite direction—that is, a person cannot use his/her confession as evidence in defense of innocency, either.

Posted by: John-Julian, OJN on Wednesday, 29 October 2014 at 4:54pm GMT

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.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Wednesday, 29 October 2014 at 8:18pm GMT

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 open his grief; that by the ministry of God's holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.'

It seems that the 'ghostly counsel and advice' was every bit as integral to the process, in Cranmer's view, as 'the benefit of absolution'.

Tim Chesterton

Posted by: Tim Chesterton on Wednesday, 29 October 2014 at 8:27pm GMT

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.

Posted by: Savi Hensman on Wednesday, 29 October 2014 at 9:01pm GMT

"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?

Posted by: Interested Observer on Wednesday, 29 October 2014 at 9:59pm GMT

"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 and the like as well, then the obviously charged example of child sexual abuse needn't even enter into it.

"It seems that the 'ghostly counsel and advice' was every bit as integral to the process, in Cranmer's view, as 'the benefit of absolution'."

Probably, but in our BAS, the words of counsel explicitly require the consent of the penitent: scenarios in which absolution is sought but not counsel are clearly covered.

"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."

This is, as I understand it, the likely outcome of any such case in Canada, where there is also no statutory or common-law protection of PPP.

Posted by: Geoff on Thursday, 30 October 2014 at 5:12am GMT

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 that incest and child abuse was endemic within the communities I worked in 40 years ago, when I mentioned this at a meal with a neighbouring vicar both he and his wife said in a manner of fact way that they had been abused as children and it happened all the time. It now seems that huge numbers of children's homes were being run as brothels and looking further back Gladstone reports there were 10 brothels offering only children in a 5 minute walk of London bridge.

Contemporary reports suggest that those set to protect vulnerable youngsters still treat their abuse too lightly and ignore cries for help with over 600 at risk children in Manchester alone .......

It's a real struggle to put all this in some sort of context without appearing to be making excuses or justifying the evil of abuse.

But those here in the UK may have seen a very useful programme about the murder of baby P just recently and the dangers implicit of making scapegoats and ignoring the wider picture.

All of us welcome the fact that abuse survivors are being acknowledged and compensated, but when I helped a young man tell his story which led to court and 10 years in jail for the priest who raped him, the process was chilling and at the end he (also now a priest) had a visit from the child protection officer who hinted broadly that he would be watched carefully now as perps had almost invariably been victims! Unalloyed good, just doesn't seem to cover it ...........
I do not greet the collapse of the church as an unalloyed good either ........

Anyway the main thesis of my comment was that this whole process with regard to the sacrament of reconciliation was a nonsense and wouldn't have helped one child in the past and won't help in the future.


Posted by: Martin Reynolds on Thursday, 30 October 2014 at 11:40am GMT

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 abuse might be such a case, and is far more likely to be confessed than child abuse. If the seal of the confessional is a moral absolute then there can be no moral scruples about keeping it.

Posted by: Bernard Randall on Thursday, 30 October 2014 at 11:53am GMT

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 Amendment? If they answer with silence they are "guilty" of contempt, if they answer with what to the world is a lie (i.e. denial of knowledge) they are "guilty" of perjury. Over to the lawyers on that one.

Perhaps the fact that the charges were dropped is a recognition that it would have been impossible to proceed with them, on the basis that it would very quickly hit problems with freedom of religion. The confessors are protected de facto by the law, even if not explicitly de iure.

Posted by: Bernard Randall on Thursday, 30 October 2014 at 12:07pm GMT

'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 this, we might save ourselves a lot of diverted energy - and money.

This aside, I agree wholeheartedly with the identification of a Sentamu knee-jerk reaction and a legal watching of backs. Remember the hysteria surrounding the panic-driven introduction of the Swine Flu' prohibitions about receiving communion a few years ago? That was Sentamu taking the lead, when Rowan was out of the country, after receiving a briefing from the legal people at Church House!

Posted by: Simon R on Thursday, 30 October 2014 at 6:01pm GMT

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 Anglican orders are null and void. I'll indulge Anglo-Catholic pretense when it does no harm, but certainly not on this.

Posted by: James Byron on Thursday, 30 October 2014 at 11:34pm GMT

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 seal of the confessional exists as part of the unwritten common law, since it was recognized in the pre-Reformation era and has never been repealed.

Posted by: Christopher on Friday, 31 October 2014 at 1:53am GMT

" 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.

Posted by: Interested Observer on Friday, 31 October 2014 at 7:47am GMT

"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 that they have to choose which evil to become part of.

But "no moral scruples"?
Good heavens!

Posted by: Erika Baker on Friday, 31 October 2014 at 9:45am GMT

"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.

Posted by: Tristan on Friday, 31 October 2014 at 10:41am GMT

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.

Posted by: Bernard Randall on Friday, 31 October 2014 at 10:50am GMT

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) that the seal of confession is a moral absolute. This decision once made means that there is no hesitation (i.e. no scruples) in future. And we do that in all areas of life. We don’t try to establish moral rules from first principles every time we experience temptation. That would lead to moral paralysis.

In this case, the priest has decided that the seal is a moral good. It would take some serious convincing to break that good thing. How do we know that "abuse and murder" were "a likely possibility." How likely does that likelihood need to be? Likely to be a possibility, or likely to actually happen? Is a 30% likelihood likely or fairly unlikely? And then the priest balances this against the immoral behaviour which is stopped by the "ghostly counsel" given to all those penitents who would stop coming if they thought their confessions might be revealed. How does the priest weigh all the little abuses stopped against the one big one not stopped?

Suppose that a penitent admits to abuse. The priest enjoins going to the police, but this is refused, so Absolution is withheld. The priest goes to the police anyway, but the abuser denies all wrongdoing, so that the victim has to relive it all in court, and yet the case collapses on a technicality. What good has been done?

But suppose the priest had not gone to the police. Instead the abuser was repeatedly enjoined in the confessional to go to the authorities, until finally the abuser's conscience kicks in (and we must suppose he has one, or he wouldn't be there in the first place), and he does just that, bringing justice and closure for the victim.

How does the priest know, after that first confession, which eventuality is more likely?

Posted by: Bernard Randall on Friday, 31 October 2014 at 12:17pm GMT

"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.

Posted by: Martin Reynolds on Friday, 31 October 2014 at 2:24pm GMT

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 was a direct contributor to more suffering.

The priest who genuinely has no moral scruples in this case is a scary person indeed.

My initial comment was made in response to Marshall Scott who seemed to suggest the moral dilemma was about the sacramental understanding of confession and the law.

I just think that's far too abstract. No genuine moral analysis leaves the potential victim out of it as if they were purely coincidental.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Friday, 31 October 2014 at 3:17pm GMT

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 are going through. When she says, "He doesn't tell me unless you tell him he can", they are genuinely surprised. I'm left to conclude that the seal, not only of the confessional, but even of ordinary confidentiality, is broken more often that we think.

However, it seems to me that when James originally encouraged us to 'confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed', he was talking about a mutual exercise in the Christian community, not a private interview between a Christian and a priest (in those days, of course, 'Christian' and 'priest' meant the same thing). I find it hard to believe that it was protected by any seal of confidentiality; I'm guessing that the whole point of it was to 'humble yourself under the hand of God, so that he may lift you up'.

Posted by: Tim Chesterton on Friday, 31 October 2014 at 3:59pm GMT

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?

Posted by: James Byron on Friday, 31 October 2014 at 5:36pm GMT

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 scruples about both justice for past victims and protection for future victims.

What that requires of me is a lot of reflection and some personal speculation. What can I do? If I were to report something from the confessional, the state would have no problem. Indeed, in the specific instance of abuse of children state law protects a person whose allegations prove untrue but are reported in good faith (and not as malicious mischief). On the other hand, I might find myself deposed for conduct unbecoming a priest. Well, that's something I have to recognize. If I fail to report I am liable to the state, but have met the canons of the Church. I cannot accept a cut-and-dried, doctrinaire position. Rather, I have to be responsible on a case-by-case basis. There are a number of very important differences between abuse of a child and petty theft, that to me make a difference in how I might respond in sacramental confession. Abuse of children is a narrow (and, for me, therefore much clearer) circumstance; but it doesn't change my intent to support some principle of the seal of the confessional. This is, for me, one of those "the Sabbath was made for humans, and not humans for the Sabbath" sorts of issues.

Posted by: Marshall Scott on Friday, 31 October 2014 at 7:58pm GMT

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 communication is "confidential" if made privately and not intended for further disclosure except to other persons present in furtherance of the purpose of the communication.

B. General Rule of Privilege. A person has a privilege to refuse to disclose and to prevent another from disclosing a confidential communication by the person to a member of the clergy as a spiritual adviser.

C. Who May Claim the Privilege. The privilege may be claimed by the person or by the person's guardian, conservator or, upon death, personal representative. The member of the clergy may claim the privilege on behalf of the person. The authority to claim the privilege is presumed in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

Posted by: rick allen on Saturday, 1 November 2014 at 10:55pm GMT

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.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Sunday, 2 November 2014 at 9:58am GMT
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