Thinking Anglicans

The Church of England and Mandatory Reporting

The Church of England has published its response to the Government’s consultation on mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse.

The Church Times writes about the response here: We don’t know, but consider religious freedom, says C of E response on exceptions to mandatory reporting.

On the Seal of the Confessional the response has this to say.

Like many other historic churches, the Church of England includes in its practices the ministry of Confession and Reconciliation. In this ministry, someone can come to a priest and disclose anything they feel they may have done wrong. It is the practice of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches to guarantee absolute confidentiality of what has been disclosed. This is often known as ‘the Seal of the Confessional’. The Seal is referred to in Canon Law, although the interpretation of the relevant legal provisions is contested.

This is a very restricted and circumscribed practice, also called ‘sacramental confession’. Absolute confidentiality does not apply in Canon Law to any other setting where confessions may be made as part of pastoral ministry, but only in the sacramental ministry of confession. This practice is not very widely spread in the Church of England, however, for those who practice it, it is held very strongly. It offers a safe space for someone to begin to acknowledge what they may have done, and start the journey towards change, including, if appropriate, be guided towards handing themselves in to the police. For those who do practise this ministry in the Church of England, it is a very important aspect of their ministry as priests. They share this view with the priests of the Roman Catholic Church, where this ministry is much more common, if not universal. Clergy in the Church of England who practise this ministry would often follow Roman Catholic teaching on this practice, as well as Church of England Canon law.

It is the view of those who practice this ministry that any breach of the Seal of the Confessional would irretrievably damage the practice, and introduce a ‘chill factor’ that would prevent those who have not committed reportable offences but simply want a safe space to process their own lives from accessing the support and help they may need. This view is not uncontroversial within the Church of England. Others would argue that the protection of children and vulnerable persons is always paramount and that absolute confidentiality should never be offered. Because the Church of England recognises historic abuses of the Seal of the Confessional, and is aware of the need to balance out appropriate protection for all and freedom of religion, it has set up a working group on the Seal of the Confessional to enable an integrated conversation and decision-making process on how the practice of sacramental confession and absolution should proceed. The working group will report to the House of Bishops in October 2023 and the House of Bishops will consider whether, and how, the ministry of reconciliation should be framed with regards to reporting.

We would urge the government to consider carefully questions of religious freedom and to take heed to different churches’ response on this matter.

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Simon Sarmiento
Admin
6 months ago

It’s a pity the CofE can’t even spell the word “response” correctly, see the header of the document. I wonder if a corrected version will be issued.

Kate Keates
Kate Keates
Reply to  Simon Sarmiento
6 months ago

Since you know that the word “response” was intended, the meaning is unimpaired and there is zero problem.

T Pott
T Pott
Reply to  Kate Keates
6 months ago

Except that it shows the response has not even been proof-read, never mind reviewed for content.

Kate Keates
Kate Keates
Reply to  T Pott
6 months ago

Not true. I remember a report which five of us proof read. None of us picked up all of the problems and the client still spotted a couple we missed. Proof reading isn’t easy.

It’s also expensive. The Church of England is a charity. Quite honestly if it thought it’s limited resources were better spent on unnecessary proof reading than, for instance, helping the poor then personally I would be extremely disappointed.

T Pott
T Pott
Reply to  Kate Keates
6 months ago

The answers to Q5 and Q27 both contaiin the words “out with” where the word “outwith” seems to be intended. Certain spellcheckers are oblivious of the word “outwith” which is not much used outwith Scotland. This shows that a spell checker may have been used, just not on the title.

Where the answer to a question is Yes how can we know she didn’t mean No, if it hasn’t been checked? And, whether she means yes or no, how can she claim that her responses are the responses of the Church of England, rather than her personal opinions.

Rowland Wateridge
Rowland Wateridge
Reply to  T Pott
6 months ago

Pedantry alert: An interesting point (which I suspect will not greatly bother other TA readers). ‘Outwith’ is used in Scottish Parliamentary drafting (examples can be found via Google search), but it is only on reading this thread that I have ever encountered it in ‘Westminster’ parliamentary drafting in The Schedule to the draft Mandatory Reporting of Child Sexual Abuse Bill as quoted in the response submitted by the Mandate Now Organisation to the HO call for evidence – linked below by Simon Sarmiento. The Schedule lists under ‘other regulated activities’: “3 (m) services offered to children by the police outwith their… Read more »

WYH
WYH
Reply to  Rowland Wateridge
6 months ago

Rowland, yes, I have been comfortable in using “outwith” , when appropriate, in report writing south of the border. I recognised others rarely used it. I had never seen the word “Firstly” until I moved south…. A parental letter arrived from “the beak” starting.. “Dear Parents, Firstly…..” I cringed and muttered to my husband…. “Goodness, what hope is there when the Headmaster writes like this”. It was always, First, Secondly, Thirdly etc..

Rowland Wateridge
Rowland Wateridge
Reply to  WYH
6 months ago

I searched high and low for ‘outwith’ in my 2020 edition of the parliamentary drafting guidance manual, without finding it used once! So there appears to have been some change in 2023. Doubtless you know that the Scots’ legal system, even the titles of the judges, has its entirely own language which would be largely meaningless to most Sassenachs. I had to study several Scottish Acts of Parliament in the 1980s/90s (actually I found them refreshingly clear and readily understood). At that time these were still enacted at Westminster. Oh for the days when Scottish solicitors simply called themselves ‘Writers’… Read more »

Richard
Richard
Reply to  Kate Keates
6 months ago

I agree with Simon. Speaking of mistakes: its limited resources, not it’s! Proofreading is never unnecessary. It’s 2023: all word processing software checks spelling and grammar. Mistakes from an organization the size of the Church of England look sloppy… not a “zero problem.” The CofE can avoid mistakes and help the poor at the same time.

Janet Fife
Janet Fife
Reply to  Kate Keates
6 months ago

Proofreading is essential if we want to communicate clearly. A misspelling in the document’s title gives the impression the authors may not be too bothered about accuracy elsewhere.

Anthony Archer
Anthony Archer
Reply to  Simon Sarmiento
6 months ago

Agree. There are other typographical errors in the document. Maybe an intern was on the case!

Anthony Archer
Anthony Archer
Reply to  Peter Owen
6 months ago

I actually think it is a rather good document and am not seeking to diminish it by these errors. It seems not to have gone through the lawyers, as they would have picked up the somewhat loose wording in the answer to Q7 to Charity Commission reporting. The duty of registered charities is to report a ‘serious incident’, which I think was the intended reference. So far as ‘Serious Safeguarding Incidents’ (however defined) are concerned, the first duty of trustees would be to report to the police and/or local authority and other relevant agencies.

David Hawkins
David Hawkins
6 months ago

What are the practical implications of this ? If a child abuser or murderer knows that any confession he might make could be reported to the police will he attend confession ? And if he doesn’t attend confession will this increase or reduce harm ? Cynic as I am I suspect this has almost nothing to do with harm reduction. We can glimpse the real reason in the Government’s attitude to Facebook. The Government opposes end to end encryption because it believes that it has the right to know everything in the pursuit of wrongdoing. Those who trust the state… Read more »

Last edited 6 months ago by David Hawkins
peterpi - Peter Gross
peterpi - Peter Gross
Reply to  David Hawkins
6 months ago

“If a child abuser or murderer knows that any confession he might make could be reported to the police will he attend confession ? And if he doesn’t attend confession will this increase or reduce harm ?” I see the problem the other way. Perhaps the people most likely to value the Seal of the Confessional are precisely the child abusers you speak of. If the Confessional is sacrosanct, not to be violated, the child abuser can make their confession and just walk away. How many recitations of the Hail Mary or Psalm 51 absolve child abuse? Do teachers in… Read more »

Last edited 6 months ago by peterpi - Peter Gross
FearandTremolo
FearandTremolo
Reply to  peterpi - Peter Gross
6 months ago

There is good evidence to suggest that Roman child abusing priests used the confessional exactly as you worry: https://survivingchurch.org/2023/09/19/mandatory-reporting-versus-the-seal-of-the-confessional/

And indeed you’re quite right: the FAANG companies already have all our personal data, and we gave it them quite willingly.

Allan Sheath
Allan Sheath
Reply to  peterpi - Peter Gross
6 months ago

“the child abuser can make their confession and just walk away. How many recitations of the Hail Mary or Psalm 51 absolve child abuse?” Peter, at a time when an informed appraisal of the practice is called for, this crude caricature of the confessional adds nothing to the dialogue. Suggest you read, for example, the-diocese-of-southwark-hearing-confessions.pdf

Simon Dawson
Simon Dawson
Reply to  Allan Sheath
6 months ago

Allan. At a time when informed appraisal of the practise is called for, it is helpful to look at academic research into actual lived experience. Quoting from Richard Scorer’s article linked here previously, describing Dr Marie Keenan’s extensive interviews with Irish RC priests “Keenan spent decades interviewing clerical sex offenders and unpicking the cognitive distortions underpinning their offending, and the ways in which the culture of the Catholic Church itself contributes to the problem. Keenan found that eight of the nine clerical sex offenders who participated in her main study had disclosed their sexual abuse of children in confession. The… Read more »

Allan Sheath
Allan Sheath
Reply to  Simon Dawson
6 months ago

I believe UCD’s Dr Marie Keegan was quoting from her book, ‘Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power and Organisational Culture’. If I’m right, this book was published 12 years ago following an extensive period of research in Ireland. Although Dr Keegan is a highly-respected academic in the field of restorative justice in the UK and Ireland, I would exercise a little caution before translating her findings uncritically into a contemporary CofE context.

Janet Fife
Janet Fife
Reply to  Allan Sheath
6 months ago

‘Keenan’

Dr. Keenan’s research was mostly with Irish Roman Catholic priests, but the problem has been known to exist with English Anglicans too. Robert Waddington, former Dean of Manchester, even told one of his victims that the boy must not mention the abuse in confession, because he (Waddington) had already confessed it and been absolved.

Allan Sheath
Allan Sheath
Reply to  Janet Fife
6 months ago

The writer herself warns against “extrapolating from a particular environment”; an environment of compulsory priestly celibacy and a church which, prior to the late 1990s when the nation was convulsed by the abuse and the cover-ups, infused the fabric of state and society in such a way that the Unionist jibe of a “priest-ridden South” was hard to refute.

Of course the problem exists among CofE priests – just as sin always exists! But it is a big leap to draw a parallel with pre-21st century Irish Catholic experience.

Janet Fife
Janet Fife
Reply to  Allan Sheath
6 months ago

Have you any suggestions as to how we tackle the problem of Anglicans using the confessional to ease their consciences re abuse, and then going on to reabuse? I understand that it’s difficult to let go of a cherished tradition – but if we find that tradition has enabled serious harm? I’ve gone through that process myself, with regard to some of my Eva/charismatic tradition, and I know it isn’t easy. But how do we stop people, including priests, abusing the confessional in this way? And is it right to expect the state to make an exemption for Anglo-Catholics re… Read more »

Allan Sheath
Allan Sheath
Reply to  Janet Fife
6 months ago

Legislating to qualify the seal will achieve little as it would first require the abuser to disclose that they had confessed their crimes to their confessor, who then failed report it. As Kate Keates points out, that’s very unlikely. Secondly, when questioned, the confessor would exercise their right to remain silent. In which case would the Crown Prosecution Service press criminal charges solely on the basis of the abuser’s word? Unlikely. I don’t describe myself as Anglo-Catholic, neither do I see the seal as “a cherished tradition”, like bonfire night, not jumping queues, or chicken tikka masala. None of these… Read more »

WYH
WYH
Reply to  Allan Sheath
6 months ago

Allan, Most large organisations and charities have now made their priorities crystal clear when it relates to matters of safeguarding. Every safeguarding policy ( that I have reviewed) states… “the well-being of the client or others who may be at serious risk of harm takes precedence over our principle of confidentiality. Our principles do not override the need to protect adults at risk from abuse. Sharing of information should be necessary, proportionate, relevant, adequate, accurate, timely, secure and recorded.” This is a sensible approach. The CofE will have to re-examine and robustly tackle its safeguarding process.

Allan Sheath
Allan Sheath
Reply to  WYH
6 months ago

If in the course of a pastoral conversation a safeguarding issue were to come up I would act “robustly” by following the CofE’s safeguarding processes.

If such an issue were to come up in the confessional I would act in accordance with the principles that have been laid out on TA (i.e. the CofE’s prescriptions) – and for those reasons that have been well-aired on TA.

Rowland Wateridge
Rowland Wateridge
Reply to  Janet Fife
6 months ago

The claim that “the seal doesn’t apply to e.g. terrorism” is a decidedly tricky one. I’m not sure it’s as categorical as you suggest. The only statutory exemption is in the C of E Canons themselves: essentially the confessor priest’s duty to report a felony which would make the priest subject to the same penalty, i.e., placed in the same position as the ‘penitent’, and generally held to mean high treason.  Section 19 of the Terrorism Act 2000 contains this saving on the duty to report to the police: “19 (3) It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under… Read more »

Jo B
Jo B
Reply to  Janet Fife
6 months ago

I would think that the terrorism situation is rather academic (at least for the CofE; I suppose it may have been an issue for some RC priests in the 6 counties) whereas, given the prevalence of abuse, it would be expected to come up more in confessions. You raise a good question, however. Could it be that if a child reveals abuse during a confession it is considered not to be part of their confession as they’re the one sinned against, not the one sinning? However it is managed I would want to see confession dealt with in the context… Read more »

Jo B
Jo B
Reply to  Simon Dawson
6 months ago

That is an illuminating passage, but what it says to me is that there was/is a problem with the approach of the confessors. Why on earth were they granting absolution without requiring penance that included submission to secular justice? They had an opportunity to push someone who, by his own account, was experiencing guilt and shame to do what was needed to prevent recurrence. And they failed.

peterpi - Peter Gross
peterpi - Peter Gross
Reply to  Jo B
6 months ago

Amen, Jo B, and thank you!

Pat ONeill
Pat ONeill
Reply to  peterpi - Peter Gross
6 months ago

As I understand it, in the RC church, a priest who hears a confession regarding breaking the secular law (whether theft, murder, child abuse or something else) must advise the penitent to report himself to the authorities and, until he does so, the priest cannot grant absolution.

Rowland Wateridge
Rowland Wateridge
Reply to  Pat ONeill
6 months ago

That, surely, is equally the case in the Church of England, certainly my personal understanding. I’m sure this has been fully covered in earlier TA threads and comments.

peterpi - Peter Gross
peterpi - Peter Gross
Reply to  Pat ONeill
6 months ago

Thanks for the info,
So a lot of confessor priests heard confessions of a serious crime and ignored the RCC’s — or other denominations’ –rules or a lot of confessing priests ignored the confessors’ admonition and felt less guilt after telling someone, or ignored confessing their problem regarding children.

Simon Sarmiento
Admin
6 months ago

Readers may find it of interest to see the response to this call for evidence submitted by the Mandate Now organisation. It can be found as a PDF document here
https://mandatenow.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/MR_CSA-HO-consult-redacted-170723.pdf

Rowland Wateridge
Rowland Wateridge
Reply to  Simon Sarmiento
6 months ago

Whether or not one agrees with everything in it, from a quick reading this response is impressively detailed and, it has to be said, far more so than the C of E one. But, possibly a pedantic point, I noted that in answer to the Home Office ‘About you’ question 4 “In sharing findings from this consultation, may we quote from your response?”, the answer was an unequivocal ‘No’, which makes it seem rather strange that the entire document is publicly available.

Interested Observer
Interested Observer
Reply to  Rowland Wateridge
6 months ago

Not strange at all. A common trick in writing government responses to public consultation exercises is to selectively mine quotes from the submissions and then answer them in isolation, rather than in the wider context. I’ve had that done to me: I wrote my then employer’s response to a regulatory consultation, so writing ex cathedra, and in the summary document my work was cherry-picked for quotes that appeared to support the regulatory initiative, neglecting that the main thrust was entirely the opposite. It wasn’t quite using “[…]” to remove “not”, but it was not far off. If I were writing… Read more »

Last edited 6 months ago by Interested Observer
Rowland Wateridge
Rowland Wateridge
Reply to  Interested Observer
6 months ago

Thank you for that explanation which had not occurred to me. Yes, I agree that one frequently sees quotations out of context which mislead. I suppose it is the same thinking which inflicts questionnaires upon us which don’t give the option of stating one’s own insight or view of the subject, merely a series of tick-boxes which don’t allow for any alternative.

Simon Dawson
Simon Dawson
6 months ago

If you have not already done so I would recommend reading Richard Scorer’s article, linked below on 20th Sep, on the Surviving Church Blog.

He has many pertinent things to say, especially the evidence from academic research on how the Seal of the Confessional actually has worked, in Ireland, in relation to child abuse.

Mark Bennet
Mark Bennet
6 months ago

What is at stake seems to be state recognition of “the seal” rather than its existence. Roman Catholic priests in England can hold to the seal, but may be committing a criminal offence by so doing and could be tried and possibly convicted under the criminal law for withholding information: this they can do if their belief is that the seal is more fundamental than the criminal law in God’s economy. The suggestion seems to be that Church of England priests may be better protected under the law by virtue of the retained proviso to the old Canons (though that… Read more »

Susanna ( no ‘h’)
Susanna ( no ‘h’)
Reply to  Mark Bennet
6 months ago

An unsatisfactory response to the victims and survivors of abuse is the current never ending story of this site.It is totally depressing. Following on from Richard Scorer’s article is a comment from Jane Chevoux describing attending confession and seeing her father’s abuse of her as her sin. And members of the Society are advocating for the right of their male priests to be told about abuse and do nothing about it with total impunity? Should these men even be priests ?

Francis James
Francis James
Reply to  Susanna ( no ‘h’)
6 months ago

There is good cause to worry about those priests defending seal of the confessional. Add to that the extraordinary belief in the ‘indelible character of a priest’ resulting from the ‘ontological change’ at ordination, and it is not hard to understand why the church covers up (incompetently) when faced with abuse allegations, rather than dealing with these problems in a way that is at all open. I come from Chi Dio, where we still live with the legacy of the late unlamented ultra-high church Eric Kemp, who wrote off the entirely valid accusations against Peter Ball as ‘the work of… Read more »

Matthew Tomlinson
Matthew Tomlinson
Reply to  Francis James
6 months ago

Your assessment of Bishop Kemp is absolutely correct, yet he still seems to be portrayed as a saint in some quarters. He was a very partisan Anglo Catholic who filled his diocese with clergy of his stamp with complete disregard to their background. I do remember one of the London bishops a number of years back stating that he simply would not consider any applicants from Chichester for posts in his episcopal area.

Froghole
Froghole
Reply to  Francis James
6 months ago

Thank you. Yet the difficulty of criticising those in authority is sometimes considerable, long after revelations have been made public. Even as late as 7 years’ ago, one person posting on this blog from near Chichester wrote in response to acerbic remarks about Kemp’s ‘legacy’: “Could contributors avoid careless comments about Bishop Eric Kemp whose elderly wife [Kenneth Kirk’s daughter] is still alive? We learn that the Church’s ‘investigation’ failed to acknowledge Bishop Bell’s living relatives – let’s not repeat this act of thoughtless negligence.” The comments made against Kemp were not only not careless but arguably rather mild compared… Read more »

Simon Bravery
Simon Bravery
Reply to  Froghole
6 months ago

I would not have wished to cause distress to Mrs Kemp but the fact remains that if you hold high office your record will be scrutinised. Time and again concerns about safeguarding in Chichester Diocese were raised. The buck stopped with the diocesan bishop whose response was to blame the victim.

Matthew Tomlinson
Matthew Tomlinson
Reply to  Froghole
6 months ago

Was the same consideration given to Peter Ball’s brother, Michael?

Sarah Marshall
Sarah Marshall
Reply to  Matthew Tomlinson
5 months ago

I cannot believe that anyone in the Church of England can go anywhere near telling an abuser that they are forgiven by God. What access do we humans have to God’s judgement? Whose side would Jesus be on? It is impossible that he would be on the side of the cruel perpetrator of abuse. He asked us to show compassion and love to those who suffer. Our duty is to defend the victims of cruelty the world over. There is a perspective on forgiveness that states that if people have not forgiven you, God has not forgiven you. If you… Read more »

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