Comments: Forward in Faith defends the Seal of the Confessional

Hear hear. Well said, FiF.

Posted by Sam at Monday, 26 October 2015 at 1:14pm GMT

While I have much sympathy with the desire to defend what is often referred to as the Seal of the Confessional, this argument won't work. Anglican theology does not recognise confession as a sacrament and so is going to say that it can be regulated by Canon.

Pragmatically, I suspect some people will also look at some of our safeguarding disasters and wonder if the Seal of the Confessional might work to cover up such things - now I know that there is no evidence it was a factor in e.g. the Chichester problems, but we are very twitchy about safeguarding matters right now . (And rightly so.)

Posted by Charles Read at Monday, 26 October 2015 at 3:14pm GMT

To answer Charles Read's point directly, the submission notes on the first page the following: 'the Convocations passed in 1959 a resolution reaffirming ‘as an essential principle of Church doctrine that if any person confess his secret and hidden sin to a priest for the unburdening of his conscience, and to receive spiritual consolation and absolution from him, such priest is strictly charged that he do not at any time reveal or make known to any person whatsoever any sin so committed to his trust and secrecy’ (emphasis added): H. Riley and R. J. Graham (eds), Acts of the Convocations of Canterbury and York (London, 1971), p. 111.'

Posted by Robin Ward at Monday, 26 October 2015 at 4:03pm GMT

The Scottish Episcopal Church's canons are unambiguous on this matter.

Canon 29 reads:

All priests who are eligible by reason of holding a pastoral charge in the Scottish Episcopal Church, or by permission granted by the Diocesan Bishop, shall make themselves available for the ministration of the Sacrament of Penance as may be convenient, and no priest may refuse to hear a confession unless able to direct the penitent to some other competent priest.

A priest may not divulge anything that has been revealed in Confession, nor refer subsequently to such matter without leave of the penitent. The seal is absolute and is not abrogated on the death of the penitent.

Posted by Kelvin Holdsworth at Monday, 26 October 2015 at 5:11pm GMT

The question which perhaps needs to be addressed in relation to any change or not, is the question of the responsibility of a priest who pronounces absolution where this is unwarranted - for example, where there is an absence of penitence and contrition. Such a priest may be giving an offender tacit or explicit permission to continue offending. What happens if the "penitent" reveals - to a police officer, or to a priest - that this has happened?

The confusion around "the Seal" may stem from the failure of those of us who are priests giving an inadequate public account of our stewardship of this ministry. There is a suggestion that this stewardship has sometimes been inadequate - appeal to a doctrine or practice in abstract is insufficient to make the defence.

I should add that I think that the case for change here has not been made. And for those who don't know me, I am an ordained priest serving in the Church of England.

Posted by Mark Bennet at Monday, 26 October 2015 at 6:00pm GMT

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

Posted by rjb at Monday, 26 October 2015 at 7:05pm GMT

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

Posted by Tim M at Monday, 26 October 2015 at 7:10pm GMT

" Anglican theology does not recognise confession as a sacrament "

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

Posted by Jo at Monday, 26 October 2015 at 7:51pm GMT

As I said when this last came up, religious freedom isn't absolute, and since the state has a compelling interest in bringing criminals to justice, the confessional seal should have exceptions, as does professional confidentiality in the fields of medicine and law.

The only reason for keeping criminals' secrets is to allow them to escape detection. That's no reason at all. If a criminal wants absolution from a priest, all they have to do is turn themselves in, and they can receive it. If they stay on the lam, then they've waived absolution. Their choice.

The absence of confession and absolution may well pressure criminals into surrendering themselves. Win-win.

Posted by James Byron at Monday, 26 October 2015 at 11:59pm GMT

Perhaps Sam or RJB, or anyone from FIF can help me make explicit an issue that may or may not be implicit in FiF's submission.

Someone comes to me asking to make a confession, and admits to a crime. I instruct them to report the matter to the police. They refuse to do so. Of course I should not pronounce absolution. But am I free now to go to the police myself?

I believe that I am, but the contrary view has been argued to me, that the seal of the confessional is not even broken by a "non-genuine" confession.

This is a hypothetical question in my experience, but I believe that I would first attempt to interrupt the confession when it sounded that an admission of illegal behaviour was coming, and would explain my view of the matter, including this "exception" to confidentiality. Secondly, before pronouncing absolution I would insist that the penitent come WITH ME to the police as part of the penance.

Very interested in other views, but if my interpretation of the rules is accepted, there seems little need to make a change.

Posted by Edward Prebble at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 2:00am GMT

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

Posted by Pluralist at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 2:01am GMT

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

Posted by john holding at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 3:19am GMT

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

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

Posted by JCF at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 6:04am GMT

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

Posted by David Walker at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 7:00am GMT

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

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 8:02am GMT

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

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

...or WHICH Anglican theology you are talking about.

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

What on earth was THAT supposed to mean?

Posted by Daniel Berry, NYC at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 9:14am GMT

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

Posted by american piskie at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 9:55am GMT

Apologies for my being imprecise re sacraments above. I should have referred to Church of England theology and I am aware that there are faithful, CofE Anglicans who do regard e.g. marriage and penance as sacraments. Our formularies do not. I was not aware of the SEC Canons though and I am grateful to Kelvin for pointing them out. This is all a good example of doctrinal diversity and development within the Communion. Personally, I would have thought that REFORM ought to be jumping up and down over the number of sacraments but they seem to be ignorant of why evangelicals are supposed to think such things are important. That leaves unreconstructed Protestants like me to make a fuss! Not for the first time I find myself more in tune with the historic values and opinions of Anglican evangelicalism than my more conservative coreligionists. (Just saying...)

On the topic in hand, I agree with Mark Bennett and others. Those who champion the seal of the confessional need to show how (practically) that can be squared with the need to safeguard the vulnerable. A recourse to sacramental theology won't work in the GS of the CofE as it will be argued that we at least do not see it (officially) as a sacrament. Recourse to previous Canons etc as Robin Ward argues will be met with the response that GS can revise the Canons. The pastoral issues will be paramount as David Walker has indicated. There are ways forward - as indicated by a number of posts here. If a perpetrator will not hand themselves in to the police, that is surely no confession in the 'Seal of the Confessional' sense?

Posted by Charles Read at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 10:22am GMT

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

David Walker's point is important too.

Posted by Alastair Newman at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 10:29am GMT

"Forward in Faith’s submission points out that the sacraments belong to the whole Church, of which the Church of England is only part, and that the General Synod therefore does not have the authority to alter them."

So how, in FiF's view, does "the whole Church" alter a sacrament?

Or is FiF's real point that the sacraments are, by definition, unalterable? And how would such a claim stand up under historical analysis?

. . .

Let me also ask a hypothetical:

"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned."

"How have you sinned?"

"I'm a bank robber. I rob banks to make a living. In fact I'm going to rob another bank tomorrow."

Is the seal absolute in this circumstance?

Does a priest have no duty to report a crime being planned, or in progress?

Posted by Jeremy at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 10:40am GMT

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

The only remaining problem here relates to the scenario where someone confesses a crime, the priest says 'your penance is to tell the police; give me a ring when you've done it and I'll pop along to the remand prison to pronounce absolution. And the penitent doesn't. What would be needed (in order to satisfy those people who rightly think there church needs to get its safeguarding in order) is a weakening of the seal of the confessional in situations where absolution has not been pronounced.

Of course, this is incredibly unlikely to happen if the priest is able to explain that it might happen.

Posted by Leon Clarke at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 12:01pm GMT

David Walker raises an important point about those who are or have been abused. One of key messages in a lot of safeguarding training these days is "never promise to keep a secret". There are things to be done in such circumstances when a disclosure is made, but also things to be done if a vulnerable person walks away rather than speak.

Is there an account of the promise to keep a secret which will stand up to the painful learning we've done over recent years?

To Charles Read's point and others on the sacraments I would add that the Article 25 of the Thirty Nine Articles says "There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord ... the five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say ... Penance ... are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel". The five others are sometimes called by proponents "Sacraments of the Church" in contrast to "of the Gospel". That suggests there may be authority in the Church to vary or to adapt to avoid "the corrupt following of the Apostles" (quoting the Article again). If we remember the context of the reformation and the sale of indulgences we might put an argument for Penance in this light.

Posted by Mark Bennet at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 12:16pm GMT

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

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

Posted by Rosemary Hannah at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 1:50pm GMT

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

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

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

Posted by Kelvin Holdsworth at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 2:04pm GMT

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

Posted by Adrian Judd at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 2:23pm GMT

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

Posted by Rowan (not that Rowan) at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 4:14pm GMT

I am astonished. I had no idea that someone could confess a heinous crime, and the priest might not report it to the authorities.

Definitely, if someone seeks absolution for a crime they have already been tried and punished for - then I'd agree that the priest could offer confidentiality in most (but not all) cases.

But if an individual confesses a heinous crime - an assault, a murder, a sex offence... then there should be a professional obligation for the priest to report that individual to the authorities, so that they may be fairly called to account. Anything else is grossly unfair on the victims.

With confession needs to come accountability, and taking responsibility for one's actions, and repentance needs to involve a willingness to face up to that responsibility.

I would be disgusted if a priest 'protected' a serious offender. Isn't that exactly the problem that has too often happened in the past in the covering up of sex offences in the Church?

Priests hearing confession should make clear from the outset, that taking responsibility, and accountability before the law, are non-negotiables of the process of the confessional.

Leaving a crime covered up is perpetuating the injustice carried out on the victim, and at that point a priest would become a collaborator in the injustice the victim has suffered.

A priest could of course encourage an offender to confess their crime privately to God, as a first step in the right direction, but priests are not God, and they need to be held to account by the law, and act in a socially responsible way, the same as anyone else.

Keeping a terrible crime secret should be unthinkable.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 4:51pm GMT

David Walker, there should be a consistent standard to break the seal of the confessional, a standard that applies regardless of whether the penitent is a criminal or a victim: based on what's been revealed, is there reasonable cause to believe that a serious crime has been committed?

If yes, end the confession, inform the penitent what's happening, and report the crime to the authorities.

Why should it apply regardless of the penitent's status? Because crimes aren't torts: they're wrongs against all of society, and leaving criminals at liberty endangers us all.

I'm accept that my position goes too far for many. That being so, as an absolute minimum, a priest should be obliged to break the seal when they have reasonable cause to believe that a person's in imminent danger. That's comparable to the standard for breaking medical and legal privilege. Any priest who refuses should be prosecuted.

Posted by James Byron at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 8:15pm GMT

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

Posted by Eric MacDonald at Tuesday, 27 October 2015 at 9:51pm GMT

Do psychotherapists in England have expectations of confidentiality? I'm a clinical psychologist licensed in two states in the US. Based on federal and state law, board regulations and professional ethical codes I explain to each new patient that what we discuss is confidential except in a few situations. These include danger to self or others (plans to go commit suicide or commit a violent crime against others) abuse of a minor (physical, sexual, abandonment, endangerment, etc) or older adult (over 65) or someone with a disability. In those cases I'm a "mandated reporter." I've had to make those reports, but I also have explained before we work together the rules around mandated reporters to every patient so that this isn't a surprise. Otherwise, confidentiality applies. Courts will sometimes try to force testimony about the content of psychotherapy but state associations and their attorneys can usually stop that and protect confidentiality.

Posted by Dennis at Wednesday, 28 October 2015 at 5:47am GMT

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

Posted by Sara MacVane at Wednesday, 28 October 2015 at 6:43am GMT

The seal of the confessional applies if a person comes to confess seeking absolution. Even if absolution is withheld, the seal applies. So the suggestion that if the person does not agree to hand themselves over to the civil authorities they are not penitent and so aren't making a real confession and aren't protected by the seal is wrong. They may be prompted by fear, concern for the consequences for other innocent people, or reluctance to accept an unjust punishment. That does not mean they should be absolved anyway, but it does not release the priest from the seal. It is perhaps worth considering where the Church of England would now be if compulsory disclosure of confessed sexual offences to the police had obtained in the 1950s for what were then homosexual offences. Clergy will also have to make judgements about historic sexual sins that may have been illegal at the time and are no longer, and vice versa.

Posted by Robin Ward at Wednesday, 28 October 2015 at 7:16am GMT

This is a very complex and serious matter and it is in that spirit I raise these questions.

Did the group drafting the FinF statement meet with survivors of abuse, especially of clerical abuse, as part of their process of reflection for producing the report? The report suggests (18) that reform of the type being discussed of the Seal would result in fewer cases of abuse being reported. Can we know the research based evidence on which this claim is based? As a contribution to this important debate, would FinF publish the bibliography behind the report as a resource to the rest of the Church? The work of the respected Irish academic Marie Keenan, *Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: gender, power and Organizational culture* (Oxford Univ press, 2013) has profound insights to offer here and I commend it to anyone interested in this debate along with more strictly theological texts which need to be engaged with as well.

Posted by Judith Maltby at Wednesday, 28 October 2015 at 9:08am GMT

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

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

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

Posted by Kate at Wednesday, 28 October 2015 at 10:53am GMT

Against Jeremy's example, we should set another:

Forgive me father for I have sinned.

How have you sinned?

I have given succour to an illegal immigrant but not reported him to the authorities.

So a crime has been committed but it is hard to detect any crime against the Covenant of the Lord. Does the Seal apply in this case and, if the Seal is allowed to become less than absolute, where would the protection lie for priests who do not report crimes confessed even where the "sinner" has not broken the Covenant directly?

Those who believe crimes can be reported if the sinner refuses to go to the police themselves, arguing there is no penitence, have a separate problem. What if confession to a priest is sufficient for God? Should a priest suggest God's forgiveness is withheld unless worldly authorities are informed? How might God feel about his minister doing that?

The purpose of confession is the saving of souls not the protection of third parties no matter how innocent, wronged or threatened those third parties might be.

Posted by Kate at Wednesday, 28 October 2015 at 11:14am GMT

Sorry for a third comment but can I extol the standard of comments below the earlier TA article to which Simon linked which raise points which have not come up in the comments on this piece yet.

Father Ron Smith at the end drew attention to an article in the Tablet about a partnered gay man being denied absolution. Formally, although most here would disagree, a lack of celibacy in a gay relationship is against church teaching. To use a less inflammatory example, so is "living in sin" - cohabitation before marriage. So, by the arguments some have raised above no absolution of any sort could be given in confessional to anybody who persists in conduct against teaching. Wouldn't such arguments mean that Confession as a sacrament must therefore be denied to gay Christians and unmarried couples? That surely can never be our intention and therefore the argument that the Seal only applies if there is penitence must logically fail.

What we should be doing, but certainly wasn't done in my case, is teaching people in confirmation classes how to use the sacrament of confession and when it might be unfair to burden a priest by confessing a crime. Indeed, I don't recall being taught about Confession at all.

Maybe Confession as a Sacrament should be limited to Cathedrals? There any priest who hears a difficult confession would be surrounded by a community of other ordained people who can counsel him or her effectively. Whatever the outcome of the theological argument on the Seal, the church ought to ensure that no priest who hears Confession is isolated from his peers in a rural parish.

Posted by Kate at Wednesday, 28 October 2015 at 12:09pm GMT

I am grateful for Kate's comments and also find some of the points made on the previous thread persuasive.
I do not identify with nearly all the categorisation of priest and priesthood lying behind much of the thinking and comments here. The person and office of the priest are part of the living and breathing presence of God's infinite mercy and forgiveness when people come to seek His love and reconciliation. The priest is that love, living and breathing, the presence of Christ himself in the depth of despair and brokenness bringing God's healing to those who have come to ask for reassurance. It is a living breathing sacrament, as all the sacraments are.
We are not the man in the corner shop nor the hairdresser, nor are we doctors or psychiatrists we are the way God has chosen to channel this mystery of overwhelming love, the love that overwhelms with monstrous compassion. We are the conduit for this, not analysts or reporters.
If you see this as analogous to a doctor or therapists role then I quite understand how you would see that there is an essential need to report. If you see this as part of the mysterious and divine relationship God has with his creation then .... You would never consider telling another.
I find it hard to even identify with the way FinF portrays the whole issue.
Many people come to this sacrament in the last days or even hours of their life, I can not see the story of God's unfailing and redeeming love lived out in the way it is described here on those occasions.

Posted by Fr Alan at Wednesday, 28 October 2015 at 2:42pm GMT

It is likely useful to distinguish between the category "sin" and the category "crime."

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

I say all this still being troubled by the tension between the tradition of the seal and the gravity of some offenses that have gone unaddressed because of it. I am clear as far as my own practice is concerned that there is a right to withhold absolution if no contrition is expressed, including in grievous cases a submission to the secular law.

Posted by Tobias Haller at Wednesday, 28 October 2015 at 4:30pm GMT

It is perhaps worth noting Canon B16 (Church of England) in this respect, which reads as follows:

B 16 Of notorious offenders not to be admitted to Holy Communion

1. If a minister be persuaded that anyone of his cure who presents himself to be a partaker of the Holy Communion ought not to be admitted thereunto by reason of malicious and open contention with his neighbours, or other grave and open sin without repentance, he shall give an account of the same to the bishop of the diocese or other the Ordinary of the place and therein obey his order and direction, but so as not to refuse the sacrament to any until in accordance with such order and direction he shall have called him and advertised him that in any wise he presume not to come to the Lord's Table: Provided that in case of grave and immediate scandal to the congregation the minister shall not admit such person, but shall give an account of the same to the Ordinary within seven days after at the furthest and therein obey his order and direction. Provided also that before issuing his order and direction in relation to any such person the Ordinary shall afford to him an opportunity for interview.

This refers to a "grave and open" sin and is directed against scandal. If a priest does not give absolution, what is the consequence in respect of admission to communion? Refusal to admit is a public act, and there can only really be one reason for it. And what is the responsibility to consult the bishop?

Posted by Mark Bennet at Wednesday, 28 October 2015 at 7:43pm GMT

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

Posted by Erika Baker at Wednesday, 28 October 2015 at 8:17pm GMT


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

Posted by Kate at Wednesday, 28 October 2015 at 8:30pm GMT

Tobias, English law, like the law of any democratic nation I can think of, prevents people from being *compelled* to incriminate themselves. This has no relevance to a person who chooses to confesses, and voluntary confessions are longstanding exceptions to the hearsay rule.

Robin, your comparison between reporting abusers, and reporting gay people, collapses on the specifics. The criminalization of child molestation has substantial and compelling justification, supported by a ton of evidence of harm. There's zero prospect that we're gonna change our minds on this. Just because one law was unjust, it isn't license to disregard another, wholly unrelated, law.

Posted by James Byron at Wednesday, 28 October 2015 at 11:29pm GMT

Kate makes some important points.

Priests giving absolution too easily has been a problem in the past, but ending this is very different from removing the seal of the confessional. That would be highly unlikely to protect children at risk: if confession were regarded primarily as a session with a professional expected to report serious crimes, few if any people would confess to such acts if unwilling to have this information passed on to the police. On the contrary, the chance of persuading abusers to turn themselves in would be lost.

As for the idea that victims not yet ready to have their abuse reported to the police should be deprived of their one opportunity to talk about their distress face to face and receive the reassurance of God's love, that seems very harsh.

Posted by Savi Hensman at Thursday, 29 October 2015 at 12:02am GMT

"The criminalization of child molestation has substantial and compelling justification"

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

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

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

Posted by Alastair Newman at Thursday, 29 October 2015 at 11:49am GMT


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

Personally I think the Seal is important on theological grounds rather than needing to be rationalised but rationalisation might help some.

Posted by Kate at Thursday, 29 October 2015 at 11:53am GMT

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

Posted by Fr Alan at Thursday, 29 October 2015 at 1:48pm GMT

Erika, I don't know how often it may happen. That it has happened, however, I do not doubt. The controversial film _Priest_ from a few years back addressed and portrayed the tension I'm describing.

Kate, this neatly describes the tension, too. Can a general principle, beyond "never break the seal" be applied, or is this an ad hoc decision on the basis of the confessor's judgment? The tradition, and the canons (on both sides of the briny) say the absolute rule applies; but it is under challenge. Hence the dilemma and discussion. My distinction about "sin" and "crime" is simply to note that the church absolves from sin, but does not, and cannot, impose a penalty for a crime (complicated by the fact that there are sins that are not crimes and crimes that are not sins!)

James, the party for whom I am concerned is the priest who has heard the literal confession. Passing that information along to the authorities may provide them with a lead, but as hearsay I don't think it would count as evidence beyond that. Of course, the priest could demand, as a condition of absolution, that the penitent confess to the authorities. But my point was about what happens if the "penitent" is impenitent and refuses to confess to the police. That, it seems to me, is the dilemma facing us over the "seal." Is the tradition (and the beliefs that underlie it) strong enough to stand against the weight of crimes committed, or that might be committed?

In all of this, I recall the dominical word that there is nothing secret that will not be made known, and that the main thing to keep secret is one's virtuous acts, not ones vices.

Posted by Tobias Haller at Thursday, 29 October 2015 at 2:36pm GMT

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

Posted by Kate at Thursday, 29 October 2015 at 6:04pm GMT

My real concern is for the victim of abuse who talks about that abuse in the context of confession (there is no guilt in being the victim, of course, but it may come up as part of a longer story the person needs to tell about their life). What is the priest's responsibility in that case? It may be that we know the abuser is still out there and may have access to other children.
My other query to those for whom formal confession is a more regular part of the church's life than it is in my church. Presumably this means that children and young people are encouraged to make confession, if they are admitted to communion or confirmed. How do you deal with the issue of confidentiality with under 18 year olds? Those of us who work with children in other settings have it drummed into us that we can't promise confidentiality, so how does that affect the confessional?

Posted by Anne at Friday, 30 October 2015 at 9:18am GMT

Tobias, in those jurisdictions where it exists, confessions are an exception to the hearsay rule, and are absolutely evidence of a crime. It happens every time a police officer repeats under oath statements a suspect made during interrogation. This is black-letter law. In many jurisdictions, a third party repeating a voluntary confession would be sufficient evidence to imprison someone for the rest of their days.

Let's sing Miranda and its equivalents together: Anything you say can, and will, be used against you in a court of law.

As for trying to brush this aside with relativism, please. It could equally be used to say that, because Uganda imprisons gay people, we shouldn't have prisons; or, for that matter, laws. An enforcement mechanism being misused somewhere is no grounds to ban it everywhere.

Whatever advocates of criminalizing homosexuality may claim, that position has no rational justification, and unless someone here is claiming that it does, we don't even disagree.

Posted by James Byron at Friday, 30 October 2015 at 10:35am GMT

Thanks, James, for the reminder of Miranda and its English equivalent (which I know from years of Masterpiece Mystery!). My understanding was that it was the nature of the recipient of the confession (acting in an official capacity) that rendered the confession admissible as evidence, rather than a confession to any third party. Thanks for the correction.

I was not defending a position, by the way, or advocating relativism, simply noting that this is the reason the debate has arisen, and the tension some are experiencing with mandatory reporting laws making demands. I will admit to doubts about the theological foundation to the concept of the "seal" though I do of course understand its practical use, and respect it as a matter of canon law.

Posted by Tobias Haller at Friday, 30 October 2015 at 4:23pm GMT
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