IICSA: Canon Bursell renews plea to Parliament to render seal of confession obsolete

04 July 2019

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IF CHILDREN are to be protected, Parliament “must intervene” in the debate on the future of the seal of confession in the Church of England by changing civil law to introduce mandatory reporting, a former diocesan chancellor, Canon Rupert Bursell QC, has said.

Canon Bursell, who is retired, was giving evidence on Thursday morning to the final public hearing being conducted by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) on the failures of Anglican Church to protect children from sexual abuse.

He was questioned in detail by the lead counsel to the Anglican investigation, Fiona Scolding QC, on the history of church doctrine surrounding the seal of confession since the Reformation, and the ongoing argument on whether the law should be amended to require all disclosures of abuse — by perpetrator or victim — are immediately reported to the statutory authorities. This is a subject on which he has expressed views to the inquiry before (News, 16 March 2018).

“I do believe that there should be a mandate that anything that leads to knowledge or reasonable suspicion of abuse, particularly child sexual abuse, should be outside the seal of the confessional,” Canon Bursell said.

Because of the doctrinal history of the seal, however, an amendment to the relevant canon, as the Anglican Church of Australia had done, while possible, would be “too complicated” and take “far too long” to address the urgency of child protection, he said. It had taken the General Synod “20 or 30 years” to ordain women to the priesthood and episcopate.

“Anything that will help to stop abuse is a matter of urgency. It is as simple as that. If one person is saved, in my view, that is enough.”

A C of E working party was set up in 2014 to address the arguments surrounding the seal and attempt to define the difference between a priest’s having a conversation with or giving guidance to a penitent, and auricular confession — a specific confession of sin in which absolution from God might be ministered through the priest. It first met in 2015 and on eight more occasions before its report was released earlier this year. The report, however, does not reach a conclusion on whether the seal should be abolished, upheld, or amended, only that more training should be given to ordinands and priests on its use (News, 10 May).

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Canon Bursell said: “If there is a distinction, you have to define either what pastoral guidance is or what auricular confession is. The problem is that there is no definition of the latter. . . I do believe that auricular confession does have a distinctiveness, which is important, [but] the damage done by sexual abuse is far more distinctive and far more important.”

Without this definition, he argues, training is fruitless. “What is the use of the training if you cannot agree on when it applies and when it doesn’t?”

He was “cynical” about whether the Church would ever reach a consensus. “I don’t believe that the Church will, because there are too many internal problems about doing it and reaching a conclusion, and therefore, if children are to be protected, Parliament has to intervene. . . It has to deal with it, in my view, right away, because every child’s soul is and unique precious in the sight of God. I am cynical and I just don’t think it will go through; so I think Parliament would have to intervene.”

IICSACanon Bursell speaking at the Inquiry on Thursday

Canon Bursell, who is a survivor of abuse, though not by a cleric, told the Inquiry: “I just don’t see that people who argue against the relaxation of the seal in relation to children understand the evil and effects of [abuse].” He agreed that changing civil law would dissolve the problem of defining auricular confession.

The working party was vice-chaired by the Suffragan Bishop of Horsham, the Rt Revd Mark Sowerby, who gave evidence after Canon Bursell on Thursday. Nobody on the working party had wanted to qualify the seal, he explained: it had to be upheld or abolished. “The half-broken seal was not a workable compromise.”

Amending the seal to accept disclosure of child sexual abuse or other “serious offences” removed the “absolute confidentiality” that encouraged penitents to come forward, he explained. This included survivors carrying a sense of misplaced guilt. “The absolute confidentially provides the safety for them to come forward.” An amendment would also “impinge upon” the ecumenical relationships of the wider Church.

Bishop Sowerby maintained, however, that it was the responsibility of the priest to refuse absolution to a perpetrator confessing abuse. “The Church does not teach that people can simply come forward and have cheap grace; there are consequences to their seeking to put things right, to making their confession, and it is the responsibility of the person hearing the confession to make sure that happens.” This included making sure that the statutory bodies were informed by that person.

Asked whether he had seen a culture change in attitudes to safeguarding within the Church since he last gave evidence to the inquiry, in March of last year, he said that he had recently been questioned by a parish safeguarding officer about photos taken at the end of a confirmation service to be shared by the diocese on social media. “I take that as evidence that the parish concerned was absolutely on the ball, and, importantly, that there was no deference to me as a bishop.”

On Friday, the Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd John Davies, was asked for his view on the place of the seal of confession in the Church in Wales in relation to child protection. “My own view is very robust,” he said. “I personally fail to see how the reliance upon the seal sits comfortably with what applies in scripture. The thrust of the Gospels is that the vulnerable should never suffer as a result of any neglect on the part of a Christian.”

He agreed that it was not clear in current canon law that the seal could be broken when the safety of children or welfare of a person was at risk.

“I personally could not see how anyone in good conscience could not pass the information on if they subscribe entirely to the doctrines of the Church about care, compassion, and justice.”

The theological views of the clergy and laity in Wales might vary, he said, but the Bench of Bishops would agree that it was “unsatisfactory and insufficiently clear”.

Vatican resists pressure to break seal of confession. The Anglo-Catholic network Forward in Faith (FiF) has welcomed a note from the Vatican upholding the “absolute inviolability” of the seal of the confessional, which means that RC priests “can never be forced to reveal whatever is learned” during the sacrament of reconciliation.

The Vatican note reads: “The inviolable secrecy of Confession derives directly from revealed divine law and is rooted in the very nature of the sacrament, to the point of admitting no exception in the ecclesial or, even less so, in the civil sphere. In the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in fact, the very essence of Christianity itself and of the Church is encapsulated.”

It declares that any political or legislative pressure to override this sacramental seal would be “a violation of religious freedom”.

Pope Francis recently said: “Although it is not always understood by the modern mentality, it is indispensable for the sanctity of the sacrament and for the freedom of conscience of the penitent, who must be certain, at any time, that the sacramental conversation will remain within the secrecy of the confessional, between one’s conscience that opens to grace, and God, with the necessary mediation of the priest. The sacramental seal is indispensable, and no human power has jurisdiction over it, nor can lay any claim to it.”

FiF responded: “The sacrament of Reconciliation can only be the safe space that it must be — not least for the victims and survivors of abuse — if all who avail themselves of it can be confident that what is disclosed in sacramental confession will never be revealed by the priest (thought they remain entirely free to disclose it themselves if and when they feel ready to do so). 

“Forward in Faith remains committed to defending the Seal. We also support better training for priests for this important ministry of the Church.”

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