11 July 2014, The Tablet

Why I agitated for confessions to no longer be bound by confidentiality

by Garth Blake QC

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.

What do you think?


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User comments (2)

Comment by: Ed Rennie
Posted: 15/07/2014 16:55:42

Dear Mr Blake QC,

Your agitations will not have the desired effect. Knowing that the seal of confession is not available to them criminals including abusers are hardly likely to make the step to go to confession when it will mean their crimes are reported. In other words those who cannot yet face bringing themselves before the police for their crimes but might just have the strength to participate in the Sacrament of confession, will no longer do so. (Although there is little evidence that this is what they do)

Removing the seal of confidentiality thus removes an extra ability the Catholic Church has to reach such people and bring them to their senses.

What would help would be to provide a process for repentant abusers to have the support of the Church in handing themselves over to the law, but have this be distinct from the confessional (confidential from all except the abuser their victim(s) and the police. This could then be encouraged once confession had taken place or for that matter before.

Essentially it's a Catch 22 remove confidentiality and you remove the graces attached to the Sacrament.

Comment by: Hughie McLoughlin
Posted: 12/07/2014 10:00:21

The "seal of confession" is really not a problem for Anglicans as there is no question of its being related to a sacrament. So I don't see how this is at all relevant to we Catholics here in the UK or the unfortunate priest in the USA.

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