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Safeguarding issues, the seal of the confessional, and Canon B 29

06 November 2015


From the Diocesan Chancellor of Durham

Sir, — I am in much agreement with the comments on the seal of the confessional made by Forward in Faith (News, 30 October). Indeed, I was the author of an article in the Ecclesiastical Law Journal ((1990) 2 Ecc LJ 84) setting out the legal basis for that seal. Nevertheless, if the Church is to have credibility, especially in relation to safeguarding, it is essential that the circumstances in which a claim to the seal can be made are both clear and transparent.

The difficulty lies in defining when there is a confession and when there is not. In its comments, Forward in Faith notes the words in the Book of Common Prayer, namely, if the person coming to confession “humbly and heartily” desires absolution; indeed, these words are repeated in Canon B 29, paragraph 3, and seem to set down a precondition to a true confession.

Forward in Faith goes on to say: “Where genuine sorrow or amendment or both are not present, the priest should not give absolution, because the confession is not real” (emphasis supplied). Later, again, they say: “Absolution should not be given until [the penitent has gone to the police as instructed by the priest]. Is that confession up to that point a real confession? Potentially it is, and becomes so if the penitent acts on the priest’s instruction” (emphasis supplied).

These quotations seem to be a recognition that in such cases there is no actual confession (either in the theological or legal sense) until absolution is given. That being so, in such cases there can be no confession in relation to which the seal of the confessional can attach.

A similar point may be made about joke “confessions” and sham “confessions” where, to take the example of an actual case, an abuser purported to confess to his priest only because he realised the priest was about to discover his behaviour and he wanted to silence him. What, too, if the confession is heard by a priest not authorised to do so under Canon B 29, paragraph 4?

All this emphasises the need for proper training for any priest who is to hear auricular confession, a point strongly made by Forward in Faith itself.

Pear Tree Cottage
Hatchet Leys Lane
Thornborough, Bucks MK18 2BU


From the Revd Geoffrey Squire SSC

Sir, — I read with interest and concern the suggestion that Church of England priests (and only C of E priests) should break the seal of the confessional when a confession of child abuse or other serious crime is confessed. Apart from other factors, I believe that this could prevent the offenders’ being brought to justice, and, more importantly, allow further abuse to take place.

Some years ago, when away with a group of young people, an immature and nervous boy of 13 asked me whether it was right that whatever anyone told a priest he would never tell anyone else. I told him that that only applied to what people said in sacramental confession, and it was called the seal of the confessional. But I also told him that if someone wished to discuss something in confidence with a priest, it would usually be very unprofessional if he spoke about it to others.

From the outset, I realised that there was something troubling the boy, but I did not wish to interrogate him or to put words into his mouth. After a few days of listening to him and gently asking questions, I knew the name of the person who was causing him problems, and suspected child abuse.

After the group event had ended, he would telephone me late at night. It was obvious that he wanted to tell me something, but could not bring himself to say it. I contacted the Diocesan Child Protection Officer, and he suggested leaving it a couple of days to see if he phoned again with further information, and, if nothing happened, I should contact the social services in his area and tell them what I had told him.

That I did, but they already knew a bit about the situation. Two days later, a man was arrested and charged with abusing the boy.

The boy might have remained silent about his abuse if I had been heavy-handed about reporting it, especially if the word “police” had been used; his abuser might never have been brought to justice, and more children might have been abused. But being patient, and listening and talking with him for about eight days, meant that all quickly fell into place, and it happened without my having to break confidence by reporting what he said.

This was not a matter of the seal of the confessional, but there were similarities. If a new state or church law required everyone to report child abuse, at what stage could it be claimed that “I knew about” any abuse and would be committing a criminal offence by not reporting it? Things are rarely that black-and-white. I suspect that more confessions are heard by Roman Catholic priests than Anglican priests; so we could have a two-tier obligatory reporting policy.

Little Cross, Northleigh Hill
Goodleigh, Barnstaple
Devon EX32 7NR

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