Thinking Anglicans

Is the seal of the confessional under threat?

Law & Religion UK has a detailed discussion about this topic, triggered by this headline in the Mail on Sunday:
Vicars set to reveal secrets of confession: Church of England may axe 400-year-old sacred law to let clergy report sex attackers

The very very thorough analysis by David Pocklington is here: CofE to axe seal of confessional? Do read it all.

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rjb
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rjb

I sincerely hope the C of E will put up more of a fight against the hegemonic values of the secular state than the Anglican Church in Australia did. There must still be a few of us left in the C of E who believe the sacrament of reconciliation to be more than just a wee cosy chat with your dog-collared social worker. And I hope there are still some who think that the church’s job is redeeming sinners rather than persecuting them. There might even be some who think that “protecting children” (that all-important but curiously ill-defined imperative of… Read more »

Laurie Roberts
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Laurie Roberts

‘400 -year-old sacred law’

Oh please. Any one for church history ?

How does such ignorance appear in unlikely places ?

Or does it mean that four hundred years ago, a new code of canons came in replacing the previous ones ?

Either way,the seal is, of course pre-Reformation, as well as, post Reformation.

Anonymity is a key aspect of the celebration of this sacrament.

Erika Baker
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Erika Baker

rjb,
police and prosecutors pressing ears to the confession door – that all sounds very dramatic.

Do we have any actual data for how many people this might affect? Are there anonymous statistics for how many people have confessed to abusing children? how many children? How many of them have stopped doing so because of the “demanding love that requires repentance and healing”?
How many might have been stopped had the priests not been bound by the seal of the confessional?

Do we actually know what we’re talking about, or are we just responding emotionally to a perceived threat?

Laurie R
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Laurie R

rjb reminds us of the presence and call of Christ in his comment. I remember going to confession at Liverpool Cathedral and finding my confession being heard by the Dean- Edward Patey ! So that was anonymous and all confession is potentially anon, of course. Years ago, my regular confessor always would ask me, “How are you ? ” after the blessing, and before my departure ! But in essence can always be private and confidential. We must not forget the penance to be imposed, either. A confessor could ask one who has broken the law, “For your penance will… Read more »

Clive Sweeting
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Clive Sweeting

This was the sort of principle for which Anglo-Catholic priests fought- sometimes successfully administering the sacrament to prisoners condemned to death who had also been excommunicated by a lay judge_ sometimes not, when chaplains in the army (who were officers) were obliged to report certain admissions to senior officers.Such mitigated success led many priests to the Roman Catholic fold where the seal of confession is known to priests and laypeople to be inviolable.

Interested Observer
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Interested Observer

“and, of course, which demands healing and acceptance from the church community towards the offender” Yeah, because well-meaning church communities are _exactly_ the people who should, with no professional assistance, deal with paedophiles. Especially as the confession model by its nature excludes victims, so while the church community is putting its arms around the poor misunderstood child abuser, the actual child is given no help at all: the police don’t know, social services don’t know, and while the church community are feeling all pleased with themselves about how understanding and supportive they are, children who have been profoundly harmed are… Read more »

Rod Gillis
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Rod Gillis

@ rjb, “I hope there are still some who think that the church’s job is redeeming sinners rather than persecuting them.” Tell that to a child who has been victimized by a serial predator. In what sense is stopping a criminal act a form of persecution? Continuing with this topic, The form for, The Reconciliation of a Penitent, in the Canadian liturgy states as a bald fact, “The secrecy of a confession of sin is morally absolute for the confessor, and must under no circumstances be broken”. (. BAS p. 166)This creates a potentially difficult moral dilemma for “confessors”. Perhaps… Read more »

Jeremy Fagan
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Jeremy Fagan

rjb: “protecting children” (that all-important but curiously ill-defined imperative of our age) Actually extremely well defined imperative, in a whole series of legislation, starting with the Children’s Act 1989, and more recently in the ‘Working Together’ documents. And the problem with not sharing information is that children are left at significant risk of massive harm. Plenty of abusers will ‘repent’ but go on to keep abusing. The church has an extremely bad record already at putting the abuser first over their victims. Time to say unequivocally that the victim / survivors come first, and are more important than church doctrine,… Read more »

Savi Hensman
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Savi Hensman

Erika, the number of people might have confessed such crimes in the past is no indication of how many might do so in future if they know the authorities might be informed. Children might be at greater risk because offenders who are aware that they have done wrong but are not yet ready to tell the police would no longer share their story with a priest who could then prompt them to take the next step. What constitutes a serious criminal offence also varies from country to country and, even here, might be subjective (e.g. are security services whistleblowers heroes… Read more »

Pam
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Pam

rjb’s comment prompted me to think of the mess the Catholic Church, and other churches, in Australia (and elsewhere) have made of institutional responses to child sex abuse. Certainly, the redemption of sinners is the job of the church but shielding criminal offences against the most vulnerable people in our community contravenes not only the law of the land but shames God. I think the seal of the confessional is important in that trust and fidelity are integral. But let’s not forget how many innocent lives have been destroyed.

Geoff
Guest

“Or does it mean that four hundred years ago, a new code of canons came in replacing the previous ones?”

I would assume the Canons of 1604, though off the top of my head I don’t know what if anything they say about the seal of the confessional.

“How does such ignorance appear in unlikely places?”

I just about doused my laptop there. By “unlikely places,” you mean the Mail?? xD

Geoff
Guest

Erika:

“Do we have any actual data for how many people this might affect?”

Does it matter? Is there really any number that could be a good answer? Would you consider one person so deterred to be negligible?

Michael Patterson
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Michael Patterson

No clergy person should ever be put in the position of safeguarding the confessions of individuals whose actions have injured and are likely to endangering the vulnerable among us, all for the sake of defending a “400 year old sacred law.”

MarkBrunson
Guest

I don’t believe anonymity is at all central or primary to the process.

It certainly isn’t how it’s done in my parish, in which I generally sit with the priest face-to-face for confession and counselling. I can see where the so-called seal is seen as important, but the integrity of that seal does not absolve a priest from a duty to the larger community. I’m not sure that this elevation from secular law is healthy, and it certainly does not reflect the idea of “in the world but not of it.”

Alastair Newman
Guest

I think Laurie R has it absolutely correct. Surely, the only suitable penance in any situation like this is to ask the penitent to turn themself in?

Does anyone know what weight of evidence, even, a confession to a priest would have compared with, say, a confession to the police or in a court room?

John
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John

I always read rjb’s comments with great interest. Historically, in the RC church especially, but no doubt in the C of E as well, confession has sometimes been dreadfully abused, e.g. in the French religious wars and in the Irish war of independence and subsequent civil war. (My late mother heard terrible stories from her southern Irish Catholic girl cousins.) It is hard not to believe that it has not also been dreadfully abused in recent times by priests and others in religious institutions in connexion with child abuse. The state has an absolute duty to protect its people from… Read more »

Victoriana
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Victoriana

I think rjb is being a little unfair on the Anglican Church of Australia. The various state parliamentary inquiries and the current Royal Commission are the kind of rolling investigation many of the churches (Roman down to the Salvos) have either avoided or fudged. To the extent that the hegemonic power of (secular) government has been necessary to get the churches to really talk about what they’ve been doing, it has been a force for good. The Salvation Army has been forced to confront some very dark aspects of their history, which only became clear to them through the series… Read more »

James
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James

I was taught (I was ordained in 2002) in ICME 4-7, both in relation to hearing confessions and safeguarding training, that the seal of the confessional has no status in statute and there is no legislation to which a priest can appeal. It was made abundantly clear to me that if I was told anything in the confessional which involved the abuse of the vulnerable (irrespective of whether I gave absolution or not) and did not disclose it to the authorities, I could be deemed to be complicit. Any people with experience of ICME training out there who can confirm… Read more »

Jim Pratt
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Jim Pratt

A perspective from Quebec (which has a very catholic understanding of the confessional, and a civil law tradition): the seal is protected by law (Charter of Rights and Freedoms), with one very specific exception carved out. The priest has a duty to report if a child is being or is in danger of being physically or sexually abused.

My sense is that the proposed changes in England are much too vague and open to all sorts of interpretation, to the detriment of the sacrament.

Marshall Scott
Guest

This has long been an issue at the local level for Episcopal clergy. Local prosecutors have not necessarily respected the concept of the seal of the confessional for anyone except Roman Catholics. In addition, the legal requirement to report child physical and sexual abuse has obtained without exception in all US states and territories (by state law, primarily) for a generation or more. In that case, the law does not respect the seal of the confessional for anyone. So, what have clerics done? That depended on what was confessed, I think. Laurie R’s response is the one I have considered,… Read more »

Tobias Haller
Guest

It has always struck me that the “seal” is practical rather than theological; that is, people who feel burdened by their sins (as the Anglican rubrics suggest) can unburden their hearts to a cleric and be assured of God’s forgiveness; and are more likely so to do when they know any thing they reveal will be held in strict confidence by the minister. Obviously the moral of this is that if this is the expectation then it must be observed. However, I see no reason why the church cannot amend this expectation going forward, so long as it is clear… Read more »

Joe
Guest

At first glance, this seems to be a conflict between two opposing goods: preserving the seal of the confession and protecting past and future victims. However, the ‘goods’ need not be in conflict: if a priest is required to report a penitent to the police, penitents will be unlikely to confess reportable offences. The victims are not protected. (Imagine parents who severely punish their children when they admit to doing something wrong: how likely are the children to make such admissions?) If a priest is not required to report a penitent, but is able to urge, and even require, a… Read more »

Interested Observer
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Interested Observer

“If a priest is not required to report a penitent, but is able to urge, and even require, a penitent to report him or herself to the police (as most priests would do), then victims may well be more protected.” So what happens when the urged, or indeed required, reporting by penitent to the police doesn’t happen? If they know that the priest will do nothing, how precisely does this “requirement” arise? Child abuse is toxic precisely because it makes people around it complicit. See, the offenders say, how damaged I am, and how children would be protected if only… Read more »

Rod Gillis
Guest
Rod Gillis

@ Jim Pratt, hi Jim, Quebec and Newfoundland are the two Canadian provinces out of 10 that recognize the so called “seal” of confession. At one point here our diocesan chancellor made it very clear that clergy in this jurisdiction do not have protection in terms of “pastor -client privilege”. You mention the Charter of Rights, are you talking about the Canadian Charter, which recognizes general religious freedom on balance, or the Quebec Charter? Criminal law in Canada is federal, and my understanding is that there is only one Supreme Court case that has set out parameters. Not sure if… Read more »

Savi Hensman
Guest
Savi Hensman

Another question arises: would such a change mean that survivors too would not be entitled to confidentiality if incidents of abuse were disclosed during confession, e.g. if they wrongly blamed themselves or their experience had led them to act in ways they regretted and which they then confessed? A teacher would be expected to report a disclosure of abuse, for instance: if the tradition of confidentiality during confession is removed, might it mean that those abused too are in effect unable to go to confession if not yet ready to talk with the police?

JCF
Guest
JCF

This is one issue where I just feel *extremely* ambivalent. There two competing goods, and two competing ills. I *want* both goods, and neither ills: “…that’s what heaven’s for”.

God bless innocent children and holy confessors. God call to ***true (legally adjudicated) repentence*** all those who abuse children—AND protect the seal of confession.

Rod Gillis
Guest
Rod Gillis

Re, Interested Observer (wed.24.4:27), thanks so much for your post with the link to Circles of Support and Accountability. I’ve browsed it only, but plan to read it through. The concept of restorative justice mentioned in the article is very important. You note in your post, that no one is beyond God’s forgiveness is a hallmark of Christianity. It’s an important perspective to maintain. Perhaps it is necessary to re-state that the duty to report abuse is not punitive to the offender, but protection from harm of the vulnerable. We live in a multi-disciplinary world. The church needs to find… Read more »

Interested Observer
Guest
Interested Observer

“if the tradition of confidentiality during confession is removed, might it mean that those abused too are in effect unable to go to confession if not yet ready to talk with the police?” So again, the church would be complicit with the abusers, by helping to provide them with the secrecy that they need. Do you have the slightest evidence to support your contention that mandatory reporting (to social services, generally, not the police) reduces people’s willingness to disclose to adults? And, even if you are right and it does, if a child discloses to an adult who then does… Read more »

MarkBrunson
Guest

I’m sorry, but I think there’s a huge difference between requiring a priest/confessor to keep mum in general, and requiring a priest/confessor to endanger others by silence. The idea that urging a child molester, serial rapist, murderer to turn themselves in will work is the most unbelievable example of magical thinking I’ve seen from adults. That isn’t how those compulsions and fears work, and, frankly, IF they confess to anyone, they aren’t looking to atone but to be told they’re okay. They may feel bad about it – that’s not the same as repentant. You want to protect the seal… Read more »

Martin Reynolds
Guest
Martin Reynolds

This is a place where law can be very unwelcome.

I was a prison chaplain for nine years and the job I did would have been impossible (or very different) if there was no assumption that the seal was sacrosanct.
Victims are penitents too. Priests often hear of horrendous crimes and abuse from them, sometimes later in life. What then of the duty to tell?

If the matter comes then into the world of crime and punishment I have seen the victim suffer terribly through the justice system and emerge feeling abused once more ……

Martin Reynolds
Guest
Martin Reynolds

There have been terrible cases of priestly abuse.
As far as I know nobody has suggested that the confession was responsible for this abuse.
As far as I know the Rotherham scandal was because good people didn’t do their job nothing to do with the sacrament of reconciliation ……..

Savi Hensman
Guest
Savi Hensman

Martin’s point is important. The situation is not as straightforward as it may seem – and, obviously, there is no reason to suppose that those not yet willing to go to the police and testify in court about certain crimes, committed by or against them, will in future disclose these during confession if confidentiality is no longer assured in the confessional. In the C of E, I believe clergy and laypeople with responsibility for children’s activities in churches are already expected to report suspected abuse to social services: the exception is very narrow. In the Rotherham case, children and parents… Read more »

dr.primrose
Guest
dr.primrose

In the U.S., this area is a matter of state law. California law, for example, provides for “clergy penitent privileges” under Evidence Code sections 1030 – 1034 (which I set out below to show how broadly protective the statute is; it also applies to religous bodies): 1030. As used in this article, a “member of the clergy” means a priest, minister, religious practitioner, or similar functionary of a church or of a religious denomination or religious organization. 1031. As used in this article, “penitent” means a person who has made a penitential communication to a member of the clergy. 1032.… Read more »

Paul Powers
Guest
Paul Powers

The solution may have to be for the priest to tell the penitent beforehand that offenses involving possible abuse or neglect of a minor (and in some places of an elderly person or person with disabilities) must be reported and are not protected by the seal of confession. The penitent has the option of either confessing and receiving absolution with the understanding that it will be reported to the authorities, or of declining to confess, in which case that sin won’t be absolved. I believe a greater reason for concern is where the abuse is revealed during the victim’s confession,… Read more »

Jim Pratt
Guest
Jim Pratt

Rod,
I was referring to the Quebec Charter.

I do have a legal background, but in American law, and practised law for 10 years before ordination. So the legal training makes me sensitive legal issues having an impact on my ministry (and having the diocesan chancellor as a parishioner means occasional conversations on the topic).

Clergy handbooks in both Montreal and Western Newfoundland (and probably the other two Newfoundland dioceses) treat the subject at length, but I’m not aware of any court rulings on the subject.

Rod Gillis
Guest
Rod Gillis

@ Jim Pratt, Sept.26, Jim thanks for your reply, clarification, additional information. You and perhaps others on this thread may be interested in this 2011 article from National Post, about this subject, referencing Cloyne,Ireland and the R.C. the seal of confession debate, but mostly as a segue into Canadian law. Note especially the second last paragraph that states that all Canadian jurisdictions agree when a child is at risk all manner of privilege, solicitor-client, doctor-patient is suspended and reporting the risk is required. http://life.nationalpost.com/2011/07/25/analysis-the-state-of-clergy-parishioner-privilege-in-canada/ While all of this is helpful in terms of whether or not and under what circumstances… Read more »

Savi Hensman
Guest
Savi Hensman

The removal of the expectation of confidentiality from confession in certain instances would set a precedent for further such changes and alter its very nature. I am not aware of any evidence to indicate that cutting people off from what could be an important step in a journey of penitence or healing would do more good than harm to children overall. There is much that could be done that would make a positive difference, e.g. improved clergy and reader training to increase knowledge about abuse (not just ability to operate safeguarding procedures) and faster processes for investigating allegations within the… Read more »

Savi Hensman
Guest
Savi Hensman

It may also be worth noting that, in the UK, the capacity of social services and the police to respond in a timely and thorough way to allegations of abuse is being slashed to shreds by funding cuts. If congregations were aware of the seriousness of this plight and took action to stop it, it might make a huge difference.

Alistair
Guest
Alistair

We live in a secular society with a very definite division of church and state. The Church has no right to protect sex offenders or any other criminal for that matter. Don’t you think it’s about time the Church made a moral stand? For once it would be nice to see the rights of individuals taking precedence over religious dogma. The C of E have at least made serious efforts to build bridges, it’s a pity the Catholic Church can’t or rather won’t do more to reform its out of date and out of touch policies.