Synod will debate the confidentiality of the confessional

31 October 2014

Madeleine Davies looks at the agenda  for the next meeting

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THE "absolute confidentiality" afforded to disclosures made under the seal of confession will be a matter for debate in the General Synod this month.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said last week that he had "every sympathy" with the view, expressed by a survivor who reported abuse to the Cahill Inquiry (News, 24 October), that disclosures that gave rise to safeguarding concerns should not be treated as confidential.

Dr Sentamu told The Times: "If somebody tells you a child has been abused, the confession doesn't seem to me a cloak for hiding that business. How can you really hear a confession about somebody abusing a child and the matter must be sealed up and you mustn't talk about it?

"When a child reports abuse, you have an obligation - a duty - to take the matter to the police. If the person who has done it comes and tells you 'I've abused someone, but I'm in a confessional now,' it needs teasing out. I have listened to those who have been abused, and what I've heard leads me to ask a question: 'Are we really serious about what Jesus said about children or not?'"

He said that, in the past, he had withheld absolution from a man who had confessed to carrying out a violent assault. The man went to the police, admitted his crime, and was arrested. He was sentenced to prison, and Dr Sentamu continued to see and counsel him.

The Synod will have an opportunity to discuss the issue as part of a "take note" debate on new draft guidelines for the professional conduct of the clergy, on the first day of the Synod.

These guidelines reflect the current legal position, stating that a priest must maintain "absolute confidentiality", but that, if a serious crime, including the abuse of children, is confessed, "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."

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This legal position dates back to a provision of a Canon of 1603, which was not repealed in the revision of canon law in the 1950s. The guidelines note that, in September, the Archbishops' Council commissioned theological and legal work to enable it to review this position with a view to enabling the Synod to decide whether it wished to legislate to amend it.

The draft guidelines are longer than those currently in circulation - published in 2003 - and include more detailed guidance on safeguarding, including a warning that failure to attend safeguarding training may result in action under the Clergy Discipline Measure. There is a section on the need for "particular caution" in deliverance ministry: a safeguarding adviser must be involved if ministry is sought in connection with a child or vulnerable adults.

There is also a section on "discipline", including new guidance on the use of social media. This states that "The power of the internet for doing harm as well as good must always be borne carefully in mind, and weighed before saying anything which may prove to be damaging to oneself as well as to others."

Question of the week: Should the seal of the confessional be absolute? 

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