ANY attempt to allow priests to breach the confidentiality of sacramental confession would be wrong, and could lead to priests’ being imprisoned, the traditional Catholic organisation Forward in Faith (FiF) has warned.
FiF’s formal submission to a Church of England working party on the seal of the confessional urges the House of Bishops, the Archbishops’ Council, and the General Synod not to remove the ban on revealing what has been said in confession.
In the sacrament of reconciliation, or penance, a priest is obliged never to disclose what is confessed by a penitent. Canon 113 of the Code of 1603 expresses this, but, the FiF submission says: “The obligation was not created by Canon 113 . . . The Seal is intrinsic to the sacrament.”
The working party has been convened to examine whether an exception to this seal should be made if someone confesses to child abuse or other serious criminal offences.
The Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson, on behalf of FiF, writes that the C of E “does not have the authority to alter” the sacraments, as they “belong to the whole Church, not just the Church of England”.
“We are confident that, if repeal of this Canon  were to remove such protection as it might offer to a priest, or (even worse) if the General Synod were to seek to impose a duty of reporting, priests would go to prison or accept ecclesiastical penalties rather than break the seal,” Bishop Robinson says.
FiF says that it is not aware of any case where a priest’s breaking the confidentiality of confession would have protected a child or vulnerable adult. Without such evidence, any change would “simply be an emotional gesture”, Bishop Robinson writes.
Furthermore, he says that if it became known that priests could pass on any details of offending told to them in confession, abusers would be less likely to seek the counsel of a priest in the sacrament, and therefore not be told to hand themselves in to the secular authorities.
FiF says that under the current practice, a priest should withhold absolution from a penitent if he or she confesses to a serious crime until the penitent reports the crime to the police.
Instead of amending the canons, FiF urges the working party to recommend additional training for priests in the ministry of sacramental confession and the need to urge penitents to report themselves to the police.
Last November, the General Synod discussed the seal during a debate on clergy guidelines (General Synod, 21 November). The then Prolocutor of the Canterbury Convocation, the Ven. Christine Hardman, said that the Church was “well aware” of the tensions between the “sensitive area of the absolute confidentiality of the confessional” and “the responsibility of the Church to protect children and vulnerable adults”.
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