Thursday, 31 May 2018

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.


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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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 to the police and health authorities by their confessors, as required, for blackmailing the clergy and laity, and the emotional harm done, by the issuance of this guidance?

And while this is in effect, all clergy, please be sure to turn any bishop who confesses that he may have impeded an investigation or destroyed records, or failed to respond to victims in a timely manner as required by canon, civil law and common decency, over to the police for investigation. Even though I am in the USA, I can attest that those bishops have negatively impacted my wellbeing, and that of millions of Anglicans.

Posted by: TJ McMahon on Thursday, 31 May 2018 at 5:14pm BST

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 seeing from Canterbury. Protecting the establishment seems to be the new religion.

Posted by: Kate on Thursday, 31 May 2018 at 6:35pm BST

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 or social services.

It is also pretty vague - if, say, you mentioned that you were worried about a relative who you thought had dementia or whose mental health issues had flared up again recently, might they be at risk of a visit from a professional or even having their liberty curtailed, even though this is nothing to do with abuse?

But I suppose if the main aim is a show of moral purity, even if this ultimately increases suffering, it makes a kind of sense.

Posted by: Savi Hensman on Thursday, 31 May 2018 at 7:33pm BST

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.

Posted by: James Byron on Thursday, 31 May 2018 at 11:09pm BST

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 everyone will know ex ante what the rules are.

Posted by: Jeremy on Friday, 1 June 2018 at 4:32am BST

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, the penitence could be "tell your crime to the police" -- one supposes. Not of course an ironclad solution of course. But the person would know that while God could forgive them, they remained culpable for their prior acts.

As it stands, that person will surely now just stay away, given this public report. And also as has been said, maybe that is the intention.

It does seem a jumble. Is this self-protection so critical because things are otherwise about to explode? The thing just seem ill-thought through.

Posted by: crs on Friday, 1 June 2018 at 9:11am BST

“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 right: professionals are trained in distinguishing between fantasy and deed, but lay people are not. Priests are, for these purposes, absolutely lay people, no matter how experienced and well intentioned they may bet. There is a large literature about distinguishing between suicidal ideation and suicide risk, and between sexual fantasy and sexual risk, and protocols exist to resolve the question. They are used by mental health practitioners in therapeutic settings, but even then are blunt and inaccurate instruments. Like a lot of screening tools, they are not calibrated other than on people who are already being treated; it's well known that healthy people who take diagnostic screening tests are over-pathologised (ie, someone healthy who takes a test really intended to distinguish between two pathologies will often be diagnosed with one of the pathologies, because the test doesn't deal with the case of healthy subjects).

But at face value, the priest is presented with someone who raises a concern both about the wellbeing of other persons, and themselves. Does s/he report it to the police? To a mental health crisis team? Their supervising priest? What? Today, they are allowed to make a judgement, and if that judgement proves to be wrong, that's between them and their conscience. Sometimes the confession will make things better. Sometimes it will have no effect, but the subject doesn't go on to offend. Very, very occasionally the subject will go on to do something very bad. As a society, we're becoming more risk averse, so making priests, in effect, mandatory reporters raises the very rare event - a subject who talks about bad things, and then goes on to execute them - far above the more general case - a subject who talks about bad things, which they are not going to execute, and is given some solace by their priest. In the latter, far more common case, calling the police or a mental health team wildly escalates the situation, and risks immense harm to the subject.

This isn't about "should children with bruises who talk about being beaten be reported to social services". Yes, they should. It's about "should people who talk about things in their head which the priest has no reason to believe present real threats be reported because the priest isn't qualified to make that judgement?" and, worse, "is a priest who _does_ _not_ make such a report culpable in the rare care where it all goes wrong?"

This is a case where risk aversion is destructive. It's the "any cost is worth paying if just one bad thing is avoided" fallacy. Disinterested listeners are a good thing. Very occasionally people speak to a disinterested listener and then do bad things. I'm afraid that risk is, overall, worth it compared to people not talking to disinterested listeners.

Posted by: Interested Observer on Friday, 1 June 2018 at 9:41am BST

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.

Posted by: Pat O'Neill on Friday, 1 June 2018 at 11:30am BST

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 the Church of England (at least according to he Wikipedia entry on "Benefit of Clergy", which is not the best source). I note also that amongst privileged relationships in past generations was marriage - so that no-one could be asked to give evidence against a spouse (I think there were also theological/Biblical roots in the idea of "one flesh" at least in the background of this).

What may be at stake rather more is whether there is sanction under the auspices of the church either for breaking the seal, or conversely for holding a confidence - so whether someone who suffered a civil or criminal sanction for claiming the seal would also be disciplined by the church. Or whether someone who broke a confidence the church held sacred would be likewise disciplined. In previous generations the privileges of the church have been rather jealously guarded.

I think also that confessional practice has been under-researched here. There is, I think, now a clear understanding that absolution is not automatic and can and on occasion should be withheld. However, some of the worst abusers have convinced themselves that their victims are consenting and enjoying the abuse, and in at least one reported case the abuser alleged he had been seduced by the person he was abusing. Such narratives brought to confession in previous generations may have been taken at face value (as they often seem to have been taken administratively according to the records which have emerged) so that the abusive acts may have been seen by some confessors as significantly less serious than they actually were. This seems to me to have been likely, quite apart from any active collusion. When we talk of abusers confessing, I don't think we have any clarity over what we are talking about..

Posted by: Mark Bennet on Friday, 1 June 2018 at 11:38am BST

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 society, and that includes freedom of religion such as a sealed confessional.

I understand that might mean that priests do not report some crimes and even that some abusers might thereby abuse more victims. That has to be set against those criminals who would never tell anyone if there wasn't a confidential confession, and whom priests persuade to come forward. It is hard to tell whether victims benefit more from a sealed confessional or not. This is not a black and white benefit.

Posted by: Kate on Friday, 1 June 2018 at 11:59am BST

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 ...

Posted by: Stanley Monkhouse on Friday, 1 June 2018 at 1:05pm BST

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 the confessional?

Posted by: Michael Mulhern on Friday, 1 June 2018 at 1:55pm BST

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 an issue.

So, the rules are clear; and "render to Caesar those things that are Caesar's" means we can't hold ourselves above the law. We can take the position that, in the civil sphere, maintaining the seal is civil disobedience, and be willing to take the consequences. But, we know what the rules are.

This sounds like confession is indeed being treated as "medicine for the soul;" and the soul in question is being given informed consent by a priest who at least knows what the rules are.

Posted by: Marshall Scott on Friday, 1 June 2018 at 2:28pm BST

“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 children either now or in the past, that the Confessor should offer to go with the Penitent to the Police, having withheld absolution. One of the issues must be whether anybody is at risk NOW. My view is that the fundamental issue is whether somebody is/has been/will be in the future harmed. The Church cannot knowingly allow confessed abuse to continue. And can surely NOT offer absolution until the penitent has contacted the relevant authorities.

Savi says: "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 or social services." Aye, and there's the rub.

I think we are seeing a number of cases in other jurisdictions/denomiations where the Confessor is deemed to have committed a criminal act by not breaking the seal of the confessional.

Safeguarding and protecting people from harm is a primary duty of the church.

Posted by: Anne Lee on Friday, 1 June 2018 at 6:27pm BST

"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.

Posted by: James Byron on Friday, 1 June 2018 at 9:40pm BST

"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?

Posted by: Interested Observer on Saturday, 2 June 2018 at 7:59am BST

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 the pharisee in the Temple, I do make my confession several times a year. If I ever thought the priest hearing my confession was under duress to compromise the Seal, I would not do so, and would be deprived of an important dimension of my discipleship. It is the only space where I know that a priest can bring me to the point of recognising what is wrong in my life, what needs to be done about it and, how by the grace of the sacrament, I can be free to try again.

The idea that people whose concerns are shaped purely by the assumptions of social work, can now pronounce on sacramental theology (and an aspect of sacramental theology that has clear statutory implications) tells me all I need to know about how dysfunctional the Church of England has become. That it is happening in Canterbury probably comes as no surprise. What happened to a multi-disciplinary approach? And when is someone going to grow a pair and tell this style-but-no-substance Archbishop that he is going to have to start taking theologians seriously? We are a Church that is guided equally by appeal to tradition and reason, as much as by a simplistic recourse scripture. Doesn't the most cursory glance at tradition and reason tell us that we fall into heresy most easily when we fail to weigh tradition in balance with our conviction that the Spirit is leading us into new truth?

We are drowning in well-meaning and ill-informed gestures that provoke feel-good headlines (for some). When are we going to see the Church having confidence in what it has inherited and affirming its value for the future?

Posted by: Will Richards on Saturday, 2 June 2018 at 10:10am BST

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.

Posted by: Kate on Saturday, 2 June 2018 at 12:54pm BST

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.

Posted by: Sam on Saturday, 2 June 2018 at 2:15pm BST

Seriously on message comment in a letter to The Times today:

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 of this in the real world, the legal implications are shocking. It is another way in which the church appears to condone the covering up of child sexual and other abuse, and frustrates efforts to save victims from further abuse. Nothing has changed, it seems. The church’s priorities are still protecting the church, and making life easier for its priests by allowing them to evade their legal responsibilities. Sadly, the interests of the victims of the abuse still seem to count for little or nothing.

Peter Murphy
Retired Crown Court judge
Huntingdon, Cambs

When will the church get it? The Diocese of Canterbury is taking a welcome lead.

Posted by: Anthony Archer on Saturday, 2 June 2018 at 10:23pm BST

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 from some commentators is, at best, second-hand opinion based on assumptions drawn from films like Priest, that bear very little relation to reality as I experience it in the confessional. This will not help us move forward from the actions of jittery, litigation-conscious diocesan secretaries - and Archbishops who are not theologically equipped to challenge them.

Posted by: Graham Hardy on Sunday, 3 June 2018 at 7:40am BST

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 the Diocese has placed on clergy is a sign of how little has been learned.

Posted by: Liam Beadle on Sunday, 3 June 2018 at 8:56am BST

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 of the kind that have been so badly handled in the past? These have not generally been connected with confidentiality during confession but rather matters brought to bishops' and other clergy's attention, sometimes repeatedly.

Posted by: Savi Hensman on Sunday, 3 June 2018 at 1:23pm BST

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 ask the Blessed Virgin Mary . . . and all the angels and saints to pray for me to the Lords our God, and of you, father, penance, (advice) and absolution."

Its use in the Church of England is founded in the Book of Common Prayer, where the Communion Service contains this in the Exhortation:
"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."
Which gave rise to the saying about its use in the C.of E.:
"All may, some should, none must."
And the form of absolution in the Visitation of the Sick:
" Here shall the sick person be moved to make a special confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which confession, the Priest shall absolve him (if he humbly and heartily desire it) after this sort.

OUR Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. "

[.... to be continued]

Posted by: John U.K. on Sunday, 3 June 2018 at 3:17pm BST

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 that some sins may be disclosed to civil authorities or to warn the penitent not to disclose matters which may lead to the seal of the confessional's being broken?

At first sight, it sounds great: abuse (and other criminal matters) will be uncovered, reported, and dealt with. But in practice, it will have the reverse effect:
1) The nature of the sacrament is compromised.
2) A penitent will not disclose matters which may lead to self-incrimnation being revealed to others, thus
3) Depriving the priest of the opportunity to (a)persuade the penitent to give himself up to the authorities, and/or
(b)suspend/withold absolution. This
(c) Lessening, raher than increasing, the possibility of matters being brought into the light.

Posted by: John U.K. on Sunday, 3 June 2018 at 3:17pm BST

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.

Posted by: James Byron on Sunday, 3 June 2018 at 4:50pm BST

"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.

Posted by: Interested Observer on Sunday, 3 June 2018 at 5:47pm BST

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 heard confessions. I have to make my own decisions how I will stand before God on this. I haven't had the specific case yet to confront me with this kind of decision. If, however, I have reason to fear that not violating the seal of confession will lead or has led to violation of victims, I think today I will have to be accountable to the victims.

Posted by: Marshall Scott on Monday, 4 June 2018 at 4:37pm BST

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 experienced it for yourself; and (b) have a more secure grip of the theology underpinning its practice.

Posted by: Will Richards on Tuesday, 5 June 2018 at 1:49pm BST

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) then it should be made entirely clear that no such privilege arises if the abuser has not handed himself or herself into the police and absolution has been given. If the church will not pass such legislation then Parliament should. Bursell clearly believes there should be clarity and I agree. To pick up Savi Hensman, the alternative approach is for clergy themselves to clarify ab initio what is and what it not covered by the ‘seal of the confessional’. In essence that is the Canterbury approach, with a pastoral encounter which may or may be found to covered being commenced with a warning. The notion that this pushes abusers beneath the radar is fanciful in the extreme. Of course that could result in some opportunities being lost to persuade abusers to report to the authorities, but given the behaviour traits involved by these wicked abusers that would seem a rare eventuality. Added to which it is more likely that it is the abused who seek pastoral support from clergy. Clarity all round would be welcome both for the sake of all those who are, or may in the future be, abused, and for clergy. More of this will be commented upon in the report of IICSSA when it finally appears and I would expect to see legislative proposals akin to the Bursell proposal. I may not have had direct experience of the sacrament, but I do not wish to see further pious defences of it in these circumstances.

Posted by: Anthony Archer on Tuesday, 5 June 2018 at 9:04pm BST
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