Thinking Anglicans

Affirming Catholicism on the Seal of Confession

We published recently responses to the Working Group on the Seal of Confession established by the Archbishops’ Council from Forward in Faith and from Anglican Catholic Future.

Here is the response issued by Affirming Catholicism:
Affirming Catholicism response to the proposals on modifying the rules relating to the seal of the confessional

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Rod GillisRevd Fr. Malcome KingrjbKatePeter K+ Recent comment authors
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James Byron
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James Byron

So even the supposedly liberal wing of Anglo-Catholicism wants the seal of the confessional to be absolute.

Guess they’re not so liberal after all!

Peter K+
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Peter K+

Leaving aside the good intent of the proposals I can’t see how any change in Canon law could be at all enforceable. If a priest in conscience considered the seal of the confessional to be absolute he or she would not only be unwilling to ‘tip off’ the authorities, but would also be unwilling, presumably, to divulge the details of the confession to any disciplinary proceedings. The only source of evidence would therefore be the person making their confession, who by definition would be a serious offender. (That’s even assuming they’d be interested in providing evidence to an ecclesiastical court… Read more »

Susannah Clark
Guest

I suspect I share your dismay, James. The consensus of the interviewees is that the seal must be absolute, and abuse should not be reported (unless the offender chooses to). Of priests who were told of abuse “no-one would be happy to pass on this information.” In the context of the terrible record the churches have in concealing and protecting sex offenders, and the scandals we know have occurred worldwide, this is abysmal. Imagine your own daughter being abused by a person who was known to have abused others. Imagine you are a victim of abuse, and you later discover… Read more »

Savi Hensman
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Savi Hensman

The post by a survivor of abuse linked to in the response, and comments below this, are I believe well worth reading by anyone interested in the topic – http://aqueercalling.com/2014/07/09/sexual-abuse-and-the-seal-of-confession/.

Susannah Clark
Guest

Savi, Thank you for the link. The article movingly describes what confession means to this person, who feels even her own abuser should be protected by the seal. But what about the next person this abuser desecrates? Because sex offenders, acting by compulsion, tend to offend again and again. Covering up their crimes is a disaster for the next victim. And I think we know this has happened many times in the recent history of the Church. The Church not reporting. The Church covering up abuse. I am not persuaded by the author’s case, however moving it is. Sometimes, faced… Read more »

Savi Hensman
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Savi Hensman

This submissions makes the point that priests should be trained to pick up on and report abuse which comes to their attention outside the confessional, and to encourage those who come to confession to report this to the authorities, making this a condition of absolution in the (very rare) cases where the abuser confesses. As far as I am aware, the scandals which have arisen are because this was not done. Information reached church authorities, by means not connected with confession, and was not acted on. This must not happen in future. But, as has been pointed out, sexual abusers… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest

“” As much as my preteen self was dying for someone–anyone–to know what was happening to me and offer support and help, even if I had disclosed the abuse to a priest in confession I cannot see how breaking the seal would have been in my best interest. Quite the contrary: it would have robbed me of my sense of security within the safest place I’ve ever known. I would have been grateful to know that a religious leader was watching out for me or taking other measures to assess my safety that would not have involved breaking the seal.… Read more »

Bernard Randall
Guest
Bernard Randall

I totally agree with Savi. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater is not going to help anybody. Contra James “Guess they’re not so liberal after all!” being liberal does not mean changing just because you can think of a reason to change; it means weighing up the arguments and evidence – being willing to change in the light of reason and experience. But sometimes reason and experience tell us that the status quo is there for good reason. Do we really think that past generations were any less aware than we are that heinous crimes might be admitted in… Read more »

James Byron
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James Byron

Savi, if you’re confident that no-one’s going to reveal compromising information to a priest during confession, would you also have the exceptions to doctor-patient and attorney-client privilege removed?

Kate
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Kate

In confirmation class, we were told a tale of when our vicar was younger and serving in Africa. The communion wine was poisoned one time but nobody got sick. The message: when it comes to sacraments, trust the Lord.

That’s true of confession too. If crimes are confessed trust the Lord to deal with it, not lay that on the priest. It may be, for instance, that in talking about it within the confessional, encourages the individual to make a far fuller confession outside the seal than they would otherwise have done.

Lister Tonge
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Lister Tonge

Dear Susannah

I was glad that you recognise other people’s consciences and that your is ‘just [your] opinion’. But in the previous sentence you dismiss other people’s conscientiously held opinion as ‘religious niceties’.

Thanks.

Paul
Guest
Paul

Savi, the scandals that have happened may well have confessed sin but because of this distorted theology that could never have come to light. How many confessors just didn’t do anything with the information, I suspect and the Catholic bishops who have been implicated in cover ups suggests many. Having known of abuse cases in church it would also be wise for good intentioned, but to my mind, theologically confused clergy not to trust the word of the supposed reformed characters or penitent sinners because they say they have changed. The safety of all God’s people should and must be… Read more »

Savi Hensman
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Savi Hensman

James and Paul, what people say if (a) they know that their identity and what they said is likely to be reported to the authorities, (b) they know it is not, may be different. So, even if someone were – under the seal of the confessional – willing to talk about perpetrating sexual abuse, they would almost certainly not do so if the understanding of confession were radically changed so that it no longer involved complete confidentiality. It could be argued that priests should lie to people coming to confession and promise confidentiality without actually delivering, but word would soon… Read more »

James Byron
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James Byron

Savi, criminals aren’t calculating machines, nor, despite the jokes, lawyers. Many are stupid, panicked, or both, and blurt out confessions, or other incriminating statements. The criminal justice system relies on criminals acting against their interests every time police convince a suspect to doom themselves to years in the pen.

If physicians and attorneys can break confidentiality, so too can priests. What’s sauce for the goose …

Kate
Guest
Kate

I think James’ comparison with legal professional privilege is very apt. Nobody is suggesting that should not be absolute. If someone confesses a crime to a barrister they are professionally unable to represent the individual but they still cannot repeat the confession – and so far as I am aware there aren’t exceptions.

If someone can get criminal advice under absolute confidentiality, why should they not be able to get spiritual advice? Or am I missing something?

John Holding
Guest
John Holding

Bernard Randall: Contra Susannah “The Church should be accountable to the Law, as much as anyone else.” the seal of the confessional is part of the Law (since Canon Law is part of the Law of the land). C of E clergy are indeed accountable to the Law. Indeed, so long as you are talking about the CofE and England. (And of course this website is primarily about England.) However, one would have thought that a theological position (the Seal) would have applied more generally than one denomination in one small country. Surely it should apply broadly and generally. And… Read more »

Edward Prebble
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Edward Prebble

Personally, I totally agree with the points made by Savi Hensman. However, re John Holding’s contribution, I was recently at a large meeting of Auckland clergy, where we were asked by an overseas guest speaker what is the position in New Zealand on the matters under discussion here. Our bishop responded: “Our position is the same as that of the Roman Catholics; the seal of the confessional is absolute. However this has never been tested in law, and our legal advisers warn us that we might be very unwise to do so.” So, hypothetically, a priest might be brought to… Read more »

Andrew Gray
Guest
Andrew Gray

The comparison of the seal of the confessional with the duty of confidence of a lawyer is not necessarily very instructive. In Canada, a lawyer can only breach her duty of confidence where there is an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm. It is an extremely narrow exception to the lawyer’s duty and would not permit her to report, for example, past crimes (however heinous). An important legal and relevant legal is discussed by Edward. It is one thing for the priest to be bound by the seal of the confessional to keep confidences in all cases (which… Read more »

David Runcorn
Guest

I totally agree with Savi and am grateful to her for expressing it so clearly. There is of course a legal discussion to be had. But neglected part of this reflection is surely a discussion of the nature and experience of grace – how it is ministered and received in the depths and dilemmas of fallen human living.

dr.primrose
Guest
dr.primrose

In the United States, civil law often protects the seal of the confession. For example, in California, the law protects from disclosure a “penitential communication” made to a “member of the clergy.” “Member of the clergy” is broadly defined to include the functionary of any religious organization (apparently regardless of whether that organization recognizes formal confession or is even Christian). “Penitential communication” is defined to mean “communication made in confidence, in the presence of no third person so far as the penitent is aware, to a member of the clergy who, in the course of the discipline or practice of… Read more »

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

Andrew, when this arose previously, as a compromise position, I suggested breaking the seal only in cases of imminent danger. Key point is, once the seal’s broken for *any* reason, the absolutist principle’s conceded, and it’s a question of details.

Unlike attorney-client privilege, where, for obvious reasons, crimes must be discussed, with priest-penitent privilege, I see no compelling reason for confessions to be shielded. Not even a theological justification: if they don’t want to reveal their crime to a priest, a penitent can always confess directly in prayer.

Mark Bennet
Guest
Mark Bennet

I’m grateful for a statement which starts to take the practicalities seriously. Suppose it were three years ago and I had taken a confession from CB that an organsation KC was not delivering as advertised in spite of insistent claims on public finance as mission critical for KC. Public disclosure at that stage would likely have had nil impact. If there had been a chance of public disclosure with any impact, no confession would have bene made. Of course confessors are human, fallible and sinful, and previous statements from other bodies have paid little attention to that. However the law… Read more »

Revd. Fr. Malcome King
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Revd. Fr. Malcome King

The unrelenting and wilful ignorance and arrogance of the Church of England never fails to astound me. Cloaking a resistance to disclosure, safeguarding and protecting the vulnerable in sacramental theology is perverse. What is this resistance and where is it coming from? All practioners who come into contact with people who may be at risk of harm or indeed carrying out harm have a duty of care that trumps the immediate concern for confidentiality and any localised priorities of the organisation in question. Of course there are ways and means of doing it but the Church needs to wake up.… Read more »

Kate
Guest
Kate

It is manifestly against the human rights of priests to expect them to break the Seal and the law everywhere ought to recognise that.

Kate
Guest
Kate

And when I stop to think about it, regardless of the priest’s views, it is clearly a breach of the human rights of the penitent to reveal confessional material without the penitent’s permission.

Anne
Guest
Anne

Thank you very much Susannah and Savi for your comments on the morning of 16th November. I agree absolutely with Susannah and I was particularly grateful for the link you gave us Savi. which was very moving and helpful. My understanding of the sacrament of reconciliation is that the penitent is confessing a sin(s) and wanting absolution. Confession implies repentance which means metanoia, a literal turning around and a change in behaviour. Any individual, clerical or lay, who confesses to sexual or any other abuse, must presumably be wanting to change his/her behaviour. But for the priest to give absolution… Read more »

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

Mark, here’s a practical scenario for you: a child molester confesses their crimes; you inform law enforcement; molester’s hauled from their bed at crack of dawn, slung in jail to dodge shivs until trial, then convicted on the strength of their confession and dispatched to an earthly hell that’d best the creations of Dante Alighieri. Downside of breaking open the seal: some who currently confess would, despite assurances, not feel free to do so. I don’t want that, I don’t deny its costs; but there’s a balancing of interests here, and the damage done by leaving violent predators at liberty… Read more »

Kate
Guest
Kate

Fr King

I could not disagree more. The first duty of the priest is neither to the penitent nor to any third party but to God. That means keeping in confidence confessions imparted to God via the priest as intercessor.

Susannah Clark
Guest

On reflection, I think I need to moderate some of my comments in the thread above. I come to the conclusion that confession is a valued and sincerely held expression of faith for parts of our Anglican communion. I have voiced my concerns about ‘not reporting’ serious criminality, primarily out of concern for potential future victims of abuse. That is my own position. However, I was wrong to refer to other people’s sincerely held beliefs as ‘religious niceties’. We stand at a crossroads in the Anglican communion, where there is a desperate danger of division and disunity. Anglican tradition needs… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest

Kate, I appreciate where you are coming from in this debate. However, if a person is breaking the just laws of the land, and brings this breech to the confessional s/he should be warned by the priest to admit the crime to the apporpriate authorities, forthwith. Of course, the priest must first decide – in his/her own conscience – that the matter being admitted to is actually actionable and accountable to legal jurisdiction. The problem for clergy – before the enactment of new laws regarding sexual behaviour of homosexuals was brought into being – was that many of us regarded… Read more »

John Holding
Guest
John Holding

Kate: “I could not disagree more. The first duty of the priest is neither to the penitent nor to any third party but to God. That means keeping in confidence confessions imparted to God via the priest as intercessor.” Which is all very well. I’ve already noted that if the priest is discovered to have withheld information about abuse, s/he is liable to conviction and a prison sentence…which s/he should serve joyfully as a martyr. But I’d hope that any priest (after going through the exercise Anne suggests) who still does not inform police is willing to carry with him… Read more »

Rod Gillis
Guest
Rod Gillis

@ Kate, “the priest as intercessor…” Indeed! Of course, the Great Prayer for the Church ends with, ” Grant this, O Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our ONLY mediator and advocate…” (BCP, Canada ). Furthermore, the absolution in the general confession speaks about the priest, not as intercessor, but in opposite terms as listener, having power to “declare and pronounce to his people being penitent…absolution and remission of their sins… ” Granting the same to those who “repent and unfeignedly believe his holy gospel…that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy…” So, there is much more… Read more »

Peter K+
Guest
Peter K+

“But I’d hope that any priest (after going through the exercise Anne suggests) who still does not inform police is willing to carry with him or her for the rest of his/her life the knowledge of the pain and the suffering the priest will have caused to all the additional innocent victims resulting from the failure to act. I’d hope that such a priest would not take comfort in the knowledge that a theological principle had been upheld at the cost of pain, suffering and possibly death for innocents.” A tad manipulative, John? I’m appreciating the discussion of general principles… Read more »

Kate
Guest
Kate

Father, I have sinned? How have you sinned my child? I have had a homosexual relationship with another man. You know that is a crime against Uganda law and that you might go to prison for the rest of your life? It should not be a crime? But it is, so I will have to tell the authorities so you don’t corrupt other men. I thought I could confess sins of lust in confidence? No. If a crime has been committed, there is no confidentiality. Nor can I offer any absolution until you have been arrested. % % % Is… Read more »

rjb
Guest
rjb

It is funny that different people have different ‘red-lines’ for what they consider to be the absolute boundaries of legitimate corporate Christian experience. For many evangelicals, the recognition of gay marriage and acceptance of same-sex attraction seems to be an absolute boundary beyond which they cannot see faithful Christian witness going. For many liberals, the toleration of homophobia or sexism – even to the point of making institutional allowances for objecting Catholics – is simply intolerable and is fatally compromising to the Church’s mission. Not feeling all-that-strongly about either issue, I’ve tended to regard both parties with some bemusement and… Read more »

Revd Fr. Malcome King
Guest
Revd Fr. Malcome King

And yet Kate, you appeal to the Human Rights of a Priest to defend the confidentiality of the Seal??? Are you for or against secular law/principles of duty of care!? The picking and choosing you seem to be engaged with, between Church and ‘worldlyness’ does not make this clear and undermines your argument. As for your Ugandan analogy; The issue is that if you disclose something which pertains to either yourself or others been put at risk of harm or abuse it is then that the Seal needs to be broken. Granted, a Priest in some places may see something… Read more »

Rod Gillis
Guest
Rod Gillis

@rjb re: ” …absolute boundaries of legitimate corporate Christian experience.” Interesting question. Corporate Christianity can be understood as both a community and a society although a complete and neat differentiation between the two notions is probably not possible. Sociologist Peter Berger, from what I remember from undergrad days of yore, talked about the “street corner society”. Yet I find the two terms useful in making something of a distinction. In fact, Roman Catholic friends tell me that one of the shifts of V2 was around the tension between church as society v. church as community. Communities are dynamic, people come… Read more »