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We don’t know, but consider religious freedom, says C of E response on exceptions to mandatory reporting

20 September 2023

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THE Church of England safeguarding bodies’ response has been given to the government consultation on mandatory reporting of child abuse — without being clear whether it supports any religious exceptions, including the seal of confession.

The response was drawn up by the Church’s National Safeguarding Team (NST) with input from policy advisers, diocesan safeguarding teams, lead safeguarding bishops, and the Seal of the Confessional Working Group. It was submitted by the National Safeguarding Director and published on Tuesday afternoon.

Mandatory reporting — without religious exception — was one of the key recommendations in the final report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) last year (News, 21 October 2022).

The recommendation specifies that this would not apply to situations in which a child is aged between 13 and 16 years old, and it is reasonably believed that the relationship is consensual and not intimidatory, exploitative, or coercive, and that the child has not been harmed and is not at risk of being harmed; and also when there is a difference in age of no more than three years between consenting parties.

In its formal response to IICSA in May, the Government said that, while it accepted the need for mandatory reporting, and agreed to a “regime” to enact this, it would be informed by “a full public consultation, beginning with the publication of a Call for Evidence” (News, 26 May).

The consultation posed a series of multiple-choice questions with room for explanation. One of the questions concerned possible exceptions to the mandate.

The NST’s response does not give a view on consensual peer relationships, except that “it is also always a judgement call on the behalf of the individual. Clear guidance would be needed around consensual relationships, and also around peer on peer abuse.”

Asked whether there should be further exceptions, the NST answers “Don’t know”, but it goes on to explain the reconciliation of penitents and the “absolute confidentiality” of the seal of confession.

The seal 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.

The response explains: “The Seal is referred to in Canon Law, although the interpretation of the relevant legal provisions is contested. This is a very restricted and circumscribed practice. . . Absolute confidentiality does not apply in Canon Law to any other setting where confessions may be made as part of pastoral ministry, but only in the sacramental ministry of confession.”

It was not common across the C of E, but for those who practised it, often clergy in the Catholic tradition, “It held very strongly.” The response sets out competing arguments without giving a view, and refers to the working group recently set up to decide on the issue (Comment, 21 July). This group is due to report to the House of Bishops next month.

The response concludes: “We would urge the government to consider carefully questions of religious freedom and to take heed to different churches’ response on this matter.”

Last month, the traditionalist organisations Forward in Faith and The Society, responding to the consultation, argued that mandatory reporting of child abuse should not be applied to statements made under seal (News, 16 August).

In further responses, the NST writes that the recommended range of people who should be subject to mandatory reporting (people working in regulated activity with children, in positions of trust, and police officers) is “too narrow” in a church context, because diocesan safeguarding officers and parish safeguarding officers are not currently within this definition.

“Therefore, we would like the ability to designate specific (and limited) roles within our organisation in order to implement this duty to the best effect.”

Mandatory reporting should apply at both an individual and organisational level, it says, but with clearly outlined responsibilities for organisations, because of the “significant number of individual legal entities which comprise the Church of England, almost all of whom are registered with the Charity Commission and therefore have their own organisational legislative duties to fulfil, for example in relation to Serious Safeguarding Incidents”.

Organisations should report annually and go beyond the scope recommended by IICSA to cover all types of abuse and neglect, the response says. Asked “what types” of abuse or neglect should be covered, the Church urged caution, for example, with sexual abuse, where “the signs and symptoms are not always going to be visible, particularly in our context” and could also be classed as physical.

“On balance, it would seem sensible to introduce mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse first, with a provision that it can be extended to other types of abuse once an evaluation has been carried out.” It also says that, in a church context, “our main reporting of child sexual abuse is generally once that person has become an adult.” Mandatory reporting of these cases would require clarity.

The question on the effects of mandatory reporting duties on various parties, including children, was not a speculation that the Church was able to answer, the NST says in its response.

But it does say that mandatory reporting should apply to both known and suspected incidents of abuse. “However, it needs to be acknowledged that even though there are recognised signs of abuse, there is still a professional judgement and interpretation to be made.”

The NST expresses confidence in the Church’s ability to spot child abuse.

Whether or not a breach of mandatory reporting should constitute a criminal offence “would depend on where the responsibility to report would sit”. It warns: “Making it a criminal offence sends a very strong message, but could have unintended consequences in that those subject to the duty may end up over-reporting.”

The NST agrees that other sanctions for failing to report could be made internally within organisations, and refers to its own actions under the Clergy Discipline Measure, a disciplinary hearing, or termination of voluntary duties.

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