07 November 2019, The Tablet

Cardinal says Church will not agree to break the Seal of Confession in abuse cases

Cardinal says Church will not agree to break the Seal of Confession in abuse cases

Cardinal Vincent Nichols outside the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in London in 2018
Kirsty O'Connor/PA Archive/PA Images

The Catholic Church in England and Wales will reject any attempt to compel priests to break the seal of confession, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said today.

On his second day giving evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse Cardinal Nichols said that priests would rather die than disclose details of a confession.

He agreed that there was a tension between the importance of mandatory reporting in abuse cases and confidentiality in confession. 

Asked how this could be resolved he said: “The history of the Catholic Church has a number of people who have been put to death in defence of the seal of confession. It might come to that.” 

He told the inquiry that the seal of confession was sacred and at the heart of the priestly ministry.

“It is an essential part of the exercise of priesthood as a nexus between my sinful humanity and the mercy of God, and I would defend the seal of confession absolutely.”

“If this inquiry were to recommend, as did the Royal Commission in Australia, breaking the seal of confession, could you tell us if this would be well received by the Bishops’ Conference?” Brian Altman QC, Counsel to the Inquiry, asked the Cardinal.

“It would not be well received. It would be rejected,” the Cardinal said.

The second day of Cardinal Nichols’ evidence - given as part of the Inquiry’s larger investigation into abuse in the Catholic Church - focussed largely on the treatment of a victim ciphered as A710.

A710, in 2009 or 2010, made an allegation of historic abuse against Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, that was investigated by Kent Police and subsequently dropped. Her case was also referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, which ruled there was no case to answer. 

But details of her case - which included information that would have made it possible to identify her - were later leaked to the press, specifically to two conservative Catholic publications, Lifesite News and First Things. An article by Italian journalist Marco Tosatti, published in September 2018, claimed that Pope Francis had personally blocked the investigation into the allegations against Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, and included references to sources in the Vatican and a source from England “with inside knowledge of the case”. 

Three days later, an open letter from Archbishop Carlo Viganò, a vocal opponent of Pope Francis, published on LifeSiteNews, alleged the Pope “has defended homosexual clergy who committed serious sexual abuses against minors or adults,” and repeated the claim that he also “halted of the investigation of sex abuse allegations against Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor.” 

Following the 2018 leak and subsequent media attention, Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, who had been A710’s parish priest, said that he wanted to issue a statement supporting A710. That statement was not published, on advice from the Bishops’ Conference’s director of information and news, Alexander DesForges, who was concerned that it would expose A710 to more media scrutiny.

“His concern was, firstly, that the statement that Bishop Doyle intended to publish would cause world-wide interest, or wide interest,” Cardinal Nichols told IICSA. “It was a statement which he did not feel he could defend, but would be left to defend, and that put him in a very difficult spot. I note that Bishop Doyle said I talked him out of his plan, or with Alexander Desforges. That's not how I recall it.”

A letter from Bishop Doyle to A710 informing her of the decision not to publish a statement added: “It was his [Mr DesForges’] opinion that the statement would be used by sections of the media internationally to get at Pope Francis."

Asked if he agreed, Cardinal Nichols said: “I think that's self-evident, actually, because the whole of this publicity, from its very beginnings, from its source in 2013, was part of a concerted effort to attack Pope Francis. That was not going to change. It would still be the case.”

Cardinal Nichols said that the wellbeing of A710 had always been his substantial concern, however. “If I may add, Pope Francis is quite capable of looking after himself,” he said.

The Cardinal also said he had only recently become aware that information about the case had been leaked by a source in this country: “I will find out who it is, to the best of my ability,” he said, but said that he was not aware of an investigation into the leak in Rome. He noted: “The leaking of information, gossip, is rife across Rome and the Holy See.”

But Mr Altman replied: “You couldn't imagine a more highly sensitive, confidential and damaging exposure to a victim or survivor of sexual abuse. This isn't gossip.”

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