Working party passes the seal of confession back to the Bishops

08 May 2019

It does not make any recommendation either to abolish or to change canon law on the issue

St Mary Brookfield, Dartmouth Park

THE Archbishops’ Council and House of Bishops must decide for themselves whether to seek to change ecclesiastical law and allow priests to breach the seal of confession to report abuse, or suspected abuse, of children and vulnerable adults, a working party has concluded after failing to reach a consensus.

The seal of confession is the priest’s obligation under canon law to hear a person’s confession of sin, or imagined sin, in complete confidence, so that nothing that the priest is told in that context will be repeated or disclosed under any circumstances. This is also the rule of the Roman Catholic Church.

A working party was commissioned by the Archbishops’ Council and the House of Bishops in 2015 to discuss the implication of this law in the context of protecting children and vulnerable adults from abuse, after questions were raised by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia. The seal has also come under scrutiny during the ongoing Independent Inquiry into Child Sex abuse (IICSA) in the UK.

The 84-page report of the working party was completed in 2017 and has a publication date of March 2018. It was released on Wednesday — more than a year later. The report does not make any recommendation (which would be brought before the General Synod) either to abolish or to change canon law on the issue, because the working party could not reach agreement.

It states: “The decision whether to invite the General Synod to legislate on this matter is one for the House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council.

“Had the members of the group reached a common mind on that issue, we would have included an appropriate recommendation in this report. Unfortunately, despite much discussion, we have failed to reach that common mind. We can only offer our report to the House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council to assist them in reaching a decision.”

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The report recommends, instead, that the clergy be better trained to deal with disclosures in the context of confession. Specifically, it says, “a module which concentrates on the issues of the practice and implications of the sacramental ministry of reconciliation in relation to safeguarding” should be compulsory during initial ministerial training, and “refreshed” as part of training given as part of continuing ministerial development.

The working party also found that diocesan safeguarding officers (DSOs) had “a significant lack of understanding” about sacramental reconciliation, and that there was “considerable variation in the advice currently given by Diocesan Safeguarding Advisers and senior clergy”. It therefore recommends training for DSOs, and that the C of E representative delivering training with the safeguarding trainer be “normally a senior priest-practitioner who is also a penitent” — rather than a DSO, as is commonly the case.

It also recommends the appointment of a “Bishop’s Adviser in the Sacramental Ministry of Reconciliation” in each diocese, and that resources should be posted on the national C of E website which “fully explain the nature of the Sacramental Ministry of Reconciliation, including explanatory material for penitents”.

These recommendations are supported by the Church’s National Safeguarding Adviser, Graham Tilby; but he also writes in favour of changing the canon: “Changing the law to be permissive would . . . place a higher value on the welfare of the child than it would upon the welfare of the penitent, particularly in circumstances when the penitent lacks remorse or any intention to change their behaviour.”

Currently, a priest hearing the confession may declare absolution and give counsel, including guidance on repentance, amendment, and restitution. An interim statement on the report from the Archbishops’ Council’s secretary-general, William Nye, explains: “That may mean a readiness where appropriate to face the legal proceedings by which justice is upheld within our society.”

He points to the current Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy, which state: “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.”

Explaining the considerations of the working party over the past three years, Mr Nye writes: “Some Anglicans feel very strongly that the ministry of confession is an integral part of the Church’s life, and that its proper practice is inseparable from the unqualified observance of the seal.

“Some observe from their experiences that the Seal of the Confessional can offer comfort to survivors of abuse, who, trusting in the absolute discretion it promises, may confide in a priest for the first time and by so doing find that they are able to unburden themselves and begin the process of healing.

“Others feel very strongly that the Church cannot continue with any aspect of its practice that stops information being passed on which could prevent future abuse or enable past abusers to be brought to justice. The House of Bishops has been giving these issues very careful consideration.”

He concludes: “At present, the ‘seal of the confessional’ is upheld in the Church of England’s ecclesiastical law. The Working Party did not reach a consensus as to whether this should change. The diversity of view within the Working Party would be reflected more widely in the Church of England.”

Forward in Faith welcomed the report and its recommendation for clergy training on the sacramental ministry of reconciliation. The group again called on the House of Bishops to “reaffirm the Seal of the Confessional as an essential principle of the doctrine of the Universal Church, as received by the Church of England”.

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