11 July 2014
Garth Blake QC
Why I agitated for confessions to no longer be bound by confidentiality
While a court in the US has ordered a priest to reveal what a young girl told him in the confessional amid fears she may have told him she was being abused by a parishioner – which his diocese has stated he will not do – an Australian Anglican explains why he lobbied for his Church to make exceptions
Anglican clergy in Australia are no longer compelled to keep confessions of serious crimes confidential, following a decision made by the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia last week.
Since 1989 clergy have been required by canon law to keep confessions confidential, except where the penitent consented to its disclosure. It is most commonly it is clergy in the Catholic tradition who hear private confessions.
This decision amending canon law provides that a member of the clergy who hears the confession of a serious offence, including criminal offences involving child abuse or child exploitation material, does not have a duty to keep the confession confidential.
Confidentiality will only be required if the penitent has already reported the offence to the police and, where applicable, the Director of Professional Standards.
Aware of public concern that the seal of the confessional could be a cloak for concealment of child sexual abuse, I first raised the issue of the confidentiality of confessions at the General Synod in February 1998.
The Clergy Discipline Working Group considered the issue and determined that the duty of confidentiality did not apply in the context of child sexual abuse where the penitent delayed or refused to report their crime to the police. The General Synod in July 2001 endorsed the report of the Working Group. There the matter rested until both the report and the effect of the General Synod resolution were challenged in 2013.
In moving this amendment I argued that the fundamental theological principle at stake is that the safety of members of the Church and the public should be of paramount concern in relation to the confidentiality of confessions.
The amendment was passed unanimously. The focus on the Anglican Church by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse undoubtedly contributed to this outcome.
The amendment was supported by the Church’s Doctrine Commission which opined that the source of the requirement of confidentiality, being the proviso to Canon 113 of the Canons of 1603 of the Church of England, had permitted an exception to the seal of the confessional in extraordinary circumstances. They recognised that significant harm or risk of harm to past, present and potential victims from a person who has committed a serious offence constituted extraordinary circumstances as to override the pastoral imperative of confidentiality.
The previous canon law of the Church had placed clergy in a position where their duty of confidentiality conflicted with statutory provisions requiring mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse and the criminal offence of concealing a serious crime.
This amendment, which has been welcomed by various commentators, demonstrates that the Anglican Church of Australia is committed to ensuring that its canon law as to confessions does not place any person at the risk of harm. Diocesan approval is required for the amendment to operate in each diocese.
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