The Seal of the Confessional

by Michael Ford last modified 14 May, 2019 03:35 PM

Church of England Bishops will meet this week to discuss a report that recommends the 'Seal of Confessional' remains even in cases of disclosure of child abuse.

The Seal of the Confessional

Photo courtesy Horia Varlan on Flickr

The Seal of the Confessional came under scrutiny last year at the IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse)’s hearings into the Anglican church. Concerns are expected to be raised again at further hearings in July. Lawyers have said clerical abuse could have been prevented if priests had reported confessions.

In 2014, John Sentamu, the second most senior cleric in the C of E, argued the seal should not apply in child abuse cases. "How can you hear a confession about somebody abusing a child and the matter must be sealed up and you mustn’t talk about it?" he said.

Presenting a report by a Working Party orginally commissioned in 2014, Mark Sowerby, the bishop of Horsham and deputy lead bishop on safeguarding within the church, said there were "legitimate concerns" about the seal of the confessional.

But the working party failed to reach a common mind on the issue. Instead, it recommended training for priests on how to deal with disclosures of criminal acts.

The church’s guidelines say that if someone discloses in confession that he or she has committed a serious crime such as child abuse, "the priest must require the penitent to report his or her conduct to the police or other statutory authority. If the penitent refuses to do so, the priest should withhold absolution."

A responsible priest would "take the opportunity to influence" a penitent to ensure a criminal disclosure was shared with the police, but the priest would not report a crime themselves, said Sowerby.

In a foreword to the report, Paul Butler, the Bishop of Durham, said: "We all finally agreed that seeking to find an 'exemptive' clause relating to child abuse, or abuse more generally, would not be legally workable; although some had hoped and thought this might be an outcome.

"We all agreed that either the 'seal' had to be abolished altogether or upheld. If it were abolished, it would be replaced by the normal legal rules about confidentiality, which apply in professional, commercial and other relationships where there is an expectation of privacy, and which permit the making of disclosures that are in the public interest."

However, he said, the group could not agree.

The hearing of confessions by a priest is less common in the Anglican church than in the Roman Catholic church. Anglican congregations take part in "general confession" during services, but individuals may approach a priest to make a private "special confession" of sins and ask for absolution.

Both churches share a common tradition of the 'seal of the confessional': confessions must not be repeated or disclosed by the priest under any circumstances.

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