Our confessional guidance is not uncanonical, Canterbury diocese says

30 May 2018

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CANTERBURY diocese has defended itself against the charge that guidance on its website advises priests to betray the seal of the confessional.

The Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, Canon Robin Ward, this week called the advice “uncanonical”, and said that it placed the clergy in an “invidious and unsatisfactory position”.

The diocese’s child- and adult-protection guidelines, drafted and posted online in early 2015, state: “The Bishop emphasises that . . . any priest hearing a confession, regularly or otherwise, must say prior to hearing that confession the following statement of confidentiality and safeguarding: ‘If you touch on any matter in your confession that raises a concern about the well-being or safeguarding of another person or yourself, I am duty bound to pass that information on to the relevant agencies, which means that I am unable to keep such information confidential.’”

Prior to this, the guidelines cite the House of Bishops policy for safeguarding children (Protecting All God’s Children, 2010), which state: “Canon Law constrains a priest from disclosing details of any crime or offence which is revealed in the course of formal confession; however, there is some doubt as to whether this absolute privilege is consistent with the civil law. Where a penitent’s own behaviour is at issue, the priest should not only urge the person to report it to the police or the local authority children’s social care, if that is appropriate, but may judge it necessary to withhold absolution. In such a case the priest may consider it necessary to alert the bishop to his or her decision in order to safeguard himself or herself and seek advice on the issues, though the penitent’s details would not be shared without their permission. The priest might also judge it appropriate to encourage the penitent to speak personally to the bishop.”

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Canon Ward drew attention to the national Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy, published in 2015, which have the authority of an Act of Convocation in both Provinces of the Church of England.

They state: “If a penitent makes a confession with the intention of receiving absolution the priest is forbidden (by the unrepealed Proviso to Canon 113 of the Code of 1603) to reveal or make known to any person what has been confessed. This requirement of absolute confidentiality applies even after the death of the penitent.”

These guidelines continue: “If, in the context of such a confession, the penitent discloses that he or she has committed a serious crime, such as the abuse of children or vulnerable adults, 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.”

By going beyond this instruction, the Canterbury advice “must surely be uncanonical”, Canon Ward states, “and places the clergy to whom it is directed, and those who make use of the practice of confession to a priest in the diocese, in an invidious and unsatisfactory position.

“For the sake of all those who exercise and use this ministry of reconciliation, this flat contradiction needs resolving.”

In a statement on Wednesday, the Canterbury diocesan secretary, Julian Hills, said that the diocesan advice had been drafted in response to “a genuine situation where, during confession, a penitent shared with a priest information about ongoing abuse. In this case, the legal and moral position of the priest was called into question.

“It was therefore felt by the diocesan safeguarding management group that clergy must have clear guidance on how to manage situations where the seal of confession may be brought into conflict with their safeguarding responsibilities.

“This guidance has not — as some have claimed — ‘abolished the Seal of the Confessional’, Mr Hills said. “Rather it is intended to advise the penitent not to divulge in confession something which would legally compromise the position of the priest — and therefore require that priest to choose between their responsibility to protect someone from harm and the usual requirement of confidentiality.”

The diocesan guidance had been drafted after seeking independent legal advice and in consultation with the then acting head of delivery for the national safeguarding team.

“Safeguarding children and vulnerable adults must be our highest priority and is at the heart of all our responsibilities,” Mr Hills said.

In 2014, the Archbishops’ Council commissioned a review of the seal of the confessional. The working group’s report is due to be debated at the December meeting of the House of Bishops.

Catholic groups have strongly defended the seal, which was discussed by the Synod in 2014 (News, 21 November, 2014). Penitents are customarily advised that concealing a serious sin on confession renders any absolution void.

In 2015, in a submission to the working group, Forward in Faith warned that ending it would make it less likely that abuse would be confessed, “and remove the possibility which currently exists of a priest counselling the offender to report him — or herself to the police” (News, 30 October, 2015).

“Every priest should know that when a crime (of whatever kind) against another is confessed, the confession should be stopped and the penitent instructed (not merely advised) to go to the police,” a Forward in Faith statement said.

It warned that “priests would go to prison or accept ecclesiastical penalties rather than break the seal”.

Forward in Faith was not aware of any evidence that “in any specific case breach of the Seal of the Confessional by a priest would have made any difference to the safety of any specific child or vulnerable adult . . . Those of us who have significant experience of hearing confessions are doubtful as to the frequency with which offences against children and vulnerable adults are confessed. We believe this to be very rare indeed.”

In a statement issued on Thursday, Forward in Faith said: “For a diocese to pre-empt synodical discussion of whether any aspect of ecclesiastical law should be changed is unacceptable.” It called for “urgent action to bring the diocese of Canterbury and the Channel Islands deaneries back into conformity with canon law and with the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy . . . If the Diocese of Canterbury is allowed to continue publicly to incite the clergy to breach canon law, that will set a very worrying precedent.”

Doubt has been cast on whether a criminal court would look with favour on the right of a priest to maintain confidentiality when it is a matter of protecting someone from abuse.

During the recent Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse, a former diocesan chancellor, Canon Rupert Bursell QC, said that there was no place for the seal of confession in relation to child sex abuse: “There is not in relation to terrorism whether the Anglo-Catholics like it or not, or whether they are aware of it or not (News, 16 March).” He had previously expressed support for Forward in Faith’s view, but warned that “the difficulty lies in defining when there is a confession and when there is not” (Letters, 6 November), and emphasised the need for “proper training”.

The National Safeguarding Team is due to issue a “specialist” training module on pastoral encounters, confidentiality, and the seal of confession, this year (News, 7 April).

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