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
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
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."
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1603, which was not repealed in the revision of canon law in the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
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