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The seal of the confessional – is it ever right to break it?

November 7, 2015

seal confThis is becoming increasingly debated when issues of child and vulnerable adult protection arise and many argue for a change: to beak confidentially.

When someone meets with me for the first time to explore spiritual direction, I explain that everything they say to me is in complete confidence except that if I think they are a danger to themselves or to others or they are involved in the abuse of children or vulnerable adults, in which case I shall take such information to supervision, where the advice is likely to be that if such activity does not cease, I shall report it to the police and/or social services.

But sacramental confession is different.

Many Anglicans think of ‘going to confession’ as ‘a Roman catholic thing’ but is practiced in the Church of England and certainly happens in this benefice. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer admonishes people to make use of the sacrament (in the Holy Communion service and in the Visitation of the Sick.) It isn’t even ‘high church’ as the Puritans practiced it, based on teaching in the Epistle of James. The term ‘penitent’ refers to the person who makes their confession to a priest and indicates that repentance and amendment of life and required before absolution can be given. The priest absolves the penitent in the name of God – indeed, the confession is made to God in the presence of the priest – not directly to the priest.

I once spoke to Fr. John Gaskell, a very experienced and highly sought out confessor and spiritual director and erstwhile vicar of St. Alban’s Holborn His answer centred on St. John Nepomunk, a 14th Century Czech Saint canonised by the Roman Catholic Church and held up as example to clergy. He was tortured and thrown into the river Vltava by King Wenceslaus (the famous ‘Good King Wenceslaus’ was his grandfather!) for refusing to reveal information given to him in confession.

The absolute confidentiality is known as the ‘seal of the confessional’ and lasts even beyond the death of the penitent.

Priests aren’t the only exception

Psychotherapists are bound by a similar confidentiality code, according to the Rev’d Dr. Chris Richards, who explained this at the staff meeting at which I raised the matter.

The Samaritans are another organisation who won’t break a confidence – though they may seek a client’s permission to do so.

This is not condoning abuse

In the 1994 film ‘Priest’, Father Greg Pilkington (Linus Roache), a young priest is agonising over repeated admissions of child abuse by a father whose daughter, the victim, is also known to him. It makes for good drama but does not reflect the reality of confession, where the guidance is that the priest should urge the penitent to admit what he has done to the authorities and seek help. Otherwise, the priest should withhold absolution as evidence of repentance and amendment of life is required as part of the sacrament.

Arguably, this stops abusers from ‘going underground’ and/or being in a state of denial, even with themselves.

It contravenes Canon Law:

We inherited our sacramental ministry from The Roman Catholic Church at the Reformation. In that tradition, Canon 21 of the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215): Let the priest absolutely beware that he does not by word or sign or by any manner whatever in any way betray the sinner: but if he should happen to need wiser counsel let him cautiously seek the same without any mention of person. For whoever shall dare to reveal a sin disclosed to him in the tribunal of penance we decree that he shall be not only deposed from the priestly office but that he shall also be sent into the confinement of a monastery to do perpetual penance’

The current Canon B29 ‘Of the ministry of absolution’ has a note referring to ‘the unrepealed proviso to Canon 113 of the Code of 1603’, which is accordingly reproduced in the current canons:

‘Provided always, that if any man confess his secret and hidden sins to the minister, for the unburdening of his conscience, and to receive spiritual consolation and ease of mind from him; we do not in any way bind the said minister by this our Constitution, but do straitly charge and admonish him, that he do not at any time reveal and make known to any person whatsoever any crime or offence so committed to his trust and secrecy (except they be such crimes as by the laws of this realm his own life may be called into question *for concealing the same), under pain of irregularity.’

* Of course nowadays there is no capital punishment in England

It goes against the opinion of a diocesan chancellor

Judge Rupert Bursell in 1990 (2 Ecc LJ 84):

  • a priest is enjoined not to break the seal of confessional under pain of irregularity
  • it’s uncertain whether a secular court would consider such communications privileged
  • the Criminal Law Revision Committee declined to recommend that priest-penitent communications be privileged
  • in criminal proceedings, a trial judge might well exclude evidence of a confession made to a priest
  • penitent might be able to obtain an injunction to prevent a priest revealing information disclosed under the seal
  • Human Rights Act 1998 may also contain grounds under Article 8 Right to Privacy
  • Priests of the CofE are in a different situation from other denominations, because it’s canon law – and therefore law of land

Elsewhere, he said: “It must always be borne in mind by the priest that the ecclesiastical law imposes a strict duty upon him not to disclose any matter communicated to him during sacramental confession

“this is not a claim to privilege but a legal obligation imposed by the law of the realm on Anglican priests…the law imposes this duty on Anglican priests”

I’m rather alarmed at hearing about these policies put in place by certain CofE churches effectively saying that the “seal doesn’t exist in this parish”. I don’t really see how that works; one can’t circumvent canon law by a local policy document.

“a minister who has been given information in confession might be under an equitable, but not an absolute, duty not to disclose.” (Legal Framework of the CofE) (1996), p355.

A bishop in another diocese told me that he would support his clergy is they were placed in such a dilemma

I think there is a clear case for saying that a priest who does breach the seal of the confessional (without good reason) would be able to be accused of an ecclesiastical offence under the Clergy Discipline Measure. I had a conversation with a couple of ecclesiastical law types about this recently, particularly about whether a Court of Law could compel a priest to break the seal. I can’t remember exactly what they said, but I think it went something like this:

It is unlawful to require a person to give evidence if the giving of such evidence requires that person to break a law of the land. Because the proviso to Canon 113 of the 1603 Canons is unrepealed, it has equivalent status with the law of the land. So to ask a priest to break the seal is unlawful.

It seems to contradict national church policy

From ‘Protecting All God’s Children’ 3rd edn. C of E policy

Reporting alleged abuse: issues of confidentiality and the legal position

The revised government guidance on the Children Act 1989, Working Together to Safeguard Children (1999)18, states:

If somebody believes that a child may be suffering, or may be at risk of suffering significant harm, then s/he should always refer his or her concerns to the local authority social services department … While professionals tand othersj should seek, in general, to discuss any concerns with the family and, where possible, seek their agreement to making referrals to social services, this should only be done where such discussion and agreement-seeking will not place a child at increased risk of significant harm.

Failure to refer could endanger a child’s life or well-being and also compromise the Church’s commitment to creating a safe environment. Responsible and informed judgement must be exercised.

Sharing information can raise some difficult questions when matters of pastoral confidence are involved, and it is essential that all Church members should understand both the general principles of confidentiality and the circumstances in which confidentiality should not be regarded as absolute.

The House of Bishops expects those with concerns about a child to consider the matter of disclosure very carefully, taking seriously the public interest in safeguarding a child’s welfare and having a proper regard for the needs and rights of all those involved.

A3..2 General duty of confidentiality

Both law and sound morals impose a general duty not to pass on information which has been received in the clear expectation that it will be treated in confidence. That duty is not absolute, however, and the courts will not intervene to restrain disclosure where (a) the information relates to a crime or other serious misconduct and (b) disclosure is in the public interest. Thus, where a child is judged to be at risk of significant harm, usually it will be legally possible, appropriate and highly desirable to disclose relevant information to the public authorities for the sake of protecting children.

If such information has been received in confidence, the person giving the information should in the first instance be encouraged to disclose it to the authorities him- or herself. Alternatively, the person receiving the disclosure should ask permission to pass the information on. If this request is denied it might still be possible to pass the information to a statutory body. The latest government guidance, What to do ifyou’re worried a child is being abused (2003) gives helpful advice in its appendix on information sharing. It states:

Disclosure in the absence of consent

The law recognises that disclosure of confidential information without
consent or a court order may be justified in the public interest to prevent harm to others.

The key factor in deciding whether or not to disclose confidential information is proportionality: is the proposed disclosure a proportionate response to the need to protect the welfare of the child? The amount of confidential information disclosed, and the number of people to whom it is disclosed, should be no more than is strictly necessary to meet the public interest in protecting the health and well-being of a child. The more sensitive the information is, the greater the child-focused need must be to justify disclosure and the greater the need to ensure that only those professionals who have to be informed receive the material.

seal 2 A3..3 Confession

It is possible that relevant information may be disclosed in the particular context of confession. Canon law constrains a priest from disclosing details of any crime or offence which is revealed in the course of formal confession: however, there is some doubt as to whether this absolute privilege is consistent with the civil law. Where a penitent’s own behaviour is at issue, the priest should not only urge the person to report it to the police or social services, but may judge it necessary to withhold absolution until this evidence of repentance has been demonstrated.

It is in everyone’s interest to recognize the distinction between what is heard in formal confession (however this might take place) which is made for the quieting of conscience and intended to lead to absolution, and disclosures made in pastoral situations. For this reason, it is helpful if confessions are normally heard at advertised times, or by other arrangement, or in some way differentiated from a general pastoral conversation or a meeting for spiritual direction.

A3. 4 Relevant legislation

Legislation designed to safeguard the private lives of individuals has been framed to take account of the overriding need to protect the wider community, including children, against crime and serious misconduct. Nevertheless, it is important to
be aware of the legal obligations which apply to those who hold sensitive
information about others.

A3..5 Data protection

Information which relates to an individual’s sexual life or to the commission or
alleged commission of an offence is treated as sensitive personal data for the
purposes of the Data Protection Act 1998. Although disclosure of such data to a third party without the explicit consent of the data subject is generally prohibited by the Act, there are specific exceptions which allow disclosure without consent where necessary in the interests of detecting or preventing crime21 or when seeking legal advice.22 The Act also prohibits the disclosure of information which identifies a third party (such as a victim or an informant) without that person’s
consent, unless disclosure is reasonable in all the circumstances.

A3.6 Human rights

The Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated into UK law the European
Convention on Human Rights, so that it is now unlawful for a public authority to act in contravention of a Convention right.

What constitutes a ‘public authority’ for the purposes of the 1998 Act is a
developing area of the law. The most recent judicial opinion23 suggests that
(except in cases such as the conduct of a marriage where the minister can be said to be exercising a governmental function in a broad sense) a person carrying out duties within the Church of England which are simply part of the mission of the Church (such as pastoral care) is not acting as a public authority. However, this is an area on which advice should be sought from the diocesan registrar in any particular case.

Article 8 of the Convention provides that everyone has the right to respect for
his private and family life, his home and his correspondence, and that a public
authority may only interfere with this right where such interference is lawful and necessary for certain purposes. The most relevant of those in the child protection context are the prevention of disorder or crime, the protection of health or morals and the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. In any circumstances where Article 8 applies to a public body, there is a judgement to be made as to whether, on balance, an interference with that right by a public authority can be justified. Where allegations of abuse are concerned, the potential harm that might result from not reporting such allegations will be a relevant factor.

It contradicts the Guidelines for the professional conduct of clergy – 18 February 2002

‘Personal information is to be regarded as presumed confidential, but clergy are to be aware of where they are under a duty to disclose information, such as where the protection of children is involved. At the same time, the absolute confidentiality of the ‘seal of the confessional’ is upheld

There has not been a test case in England. However, there has been in the US – though it has no case-law implications here. ‘The earliest and most influential case acknowledging the priest-penitent privilege was People v. Phillips, where the Court of General Sessions of the City of New York refused to compel a priest to testify or face criminal punishment. The Court opined:

“It is essential to the free exercise of a religion, that its ordinances should be administered – that its ceremonies as well as its essentials should be protected. Secrecy is of the essence of penance. The sinner will not confess, nor will the priest receive his confession, if the veil of secrecy is removed: To decide that the minister shall promulgate what he receives in confession, is to declare that there shall be no penance…”

(However, it distinguished the case on the grounds that the defendant had approached the minister as a “friend or adviser,” not in his capacity as a professional or spiritual advisor. As with most privileges, a debate still exists about the circumstances under which the priest-penitent privilege applies. The capacity in which the clergyman is acting at the time of the communication is relevant in many jurisdictions.)

7.2 There can be no disclosure of what is confessed to a priest. [..]

7.3 Where abuse of children of vulnerable adults is admitted in the context of confession, the priest should urge the person to report his or her behaviour to the police or social services, and should also make this a condition of absolution, or withhold absolution until this evidence of repentance has been demonstrated.

7.4 If a penitent’s behaviour gravely threatens his or her well-being or that of others, the priest, while advising action on the penitent’s part, must still keep the confidence.

seal 3 Recent correspondence in the church press:

CLERGY who hear confessions of serious offences, such as child sexual abuse, may not always be obliged to keep the confession secret after a legislative change made last week by the Australian General Synod. The priest is obliged to keep the matter confidential only if he or she is satisfied that the penitent has already reported the matter to police.

The change to the 1989 canon on confessions, however, comes into force in each diocese only if the diocesan synod adopts it.

A Sydney barrister, Garth Blake, who proposed the change, said that the intention was to protect the safety of members of the Church and the public by ensuring that the rules of the Church did not act as a cloak for serious offenders.

The Archbishop of Melbourne and incoming Primate, Dr Philip Freier, reminded the Synod that the Anglican Church had not always imposed an absolute seal on the confessional: the 1603 Canons state that clergy were obliged to report confessions concerning treason. CT 11/7/14

At the end of your report that “Synod will debate the con­fidentiality of the confessional” (News, 31 October), you ask at for your readers to vote on “Should the seal of the confessional be ab­solute?” In this question, your terminology goes beyond anything in the report about the projected guidelines, though I recognise that the words you use are in frequent currency.

We should, however, surely be wary of giving too great a substance to concepts that form no part of our formularies, and are clearly borrowed uncritically from the Church of Rome. To be precise: at the Reformation, the Church of England retained no rite that could be called the “confessional”; it stated in Article XXV that “Penance” had arisen from the “corrupt following of the apostles”; and it provided for someone troubled by some particular scruple or sin to go to a “learned minister of God’s word” and “by the ministry God’s word . . . receive comfort and the benefit of absolution” — clearly a pastoral interview with the Bible open between minister and troubled person.

The special moving of a dying person similarly to confess any particular matter on his or her conscience had none of the characteristics of the Roman confessional; for it came in the open context of a brief liturgy at the bedside with other members of the family present.

The requirement in Canon 113 of 1603 is a requirement of proper confidentiality in ministering at a private interview, but it has no mention of a “seal”, and the in­ability of the Canon Law revisers in the 1960s to find any agreed way of bringing it up to date meant that no further definition of Confidentiality such as to amount to a “seal” came into our formularies.

Common Worship admittedly makes provision (as a way com­mended by the bishops, not as an authorised service) for the “Recon­ciliation of a Penitent”, but this is simply a suggested way of meeting pastoral needs, and there are many other ways, and of course no mention of a “seal”.

It is not simply a matter of terminology. As I understand it, Roman Canon Law says the seal is absolutely “inviolable”, and it sets that inviolability into a carefully defined context of the “confes­sional”. Without the definition of a “confessional”, there can be no application of a “seal”.

The Church of England lacks both, and so would be wise to avoid the terminology. That, however, in no sense diminishes the concern for the highest possible degree of confidentiality in one-to-one forms of ministry, and guidelines that chart the possible limits on such confidentiality are much to be valued. the Rt Revd Dr Colin Buchanan Church Times 14/11/14

It seems as if the issue of child sex abuse will not go away. North Wales is the latest region to be the focus for accusations and enquiries as to how vulnerable children in a protective environment were delivered into the hands of predators. But, of course, abuse is pervasive far beyond the walls of institutions.

For long, I have had interest in this matter ever since about 25 years ago a young man told me how he and his brother had been abused by their father, aunt and uncle while a fourth person filmed the degradation. And it all happened in the near neighbourhood of the house in which I now live.

Statistics vary, largely because – like rape – victims fear that they will not be believed, even if they have the vocabulary to say what happened to them. But we do know that most of the assailants are known to their victims. And perhaps most chilling of all, the conviction rate is desperately low.

It has long seemed to me that there are two silences which surround this issue. The first is that of victims who feel too afraid or intimidated to speak. It sometimes takes a national scandal to have the cathartic effect of emboldening people to contact lawyers or sympathetic agencies.

The other, the deeper, the more menacing silence concerns how we deal with abusers and potential abusers. From my contact with one, a penitent, who is serving a long prison sentence, it seems odd that after five years he is yet to have any counselling or therapy. Containment alone does not decrease desire.

But what of those who are aware of this malign tendency within them? What of those who have never offended, but feel sexually attracted to children, and know that if they confide this to a doctor, a social worker, a counsellor or priest their names as potential offenders may be passed onto the police? What do we do for the men – for it is mostly men – who as fathers, step-fathers, uncles, lovers are aware of a destructive passion within them?

I want to vote for a party and belong to a church which takes this issue seriously. For all the laws and all the CCTV cameras and all the child protection measures do not deal with the malign desire which even in the most respected of men – clergy, politicians, social workers – can lead to the psychological mangling of innocent children.

I wish there were a verse in the Bible which provided the answer. But there is none. The nearest I can find is the occasion on which Jesus recognised the complexity of sexual offences and refused to give in to angry men who were keen to stone to death a woman caught in the act of adultery.

Maybe today someone will think constructively of how to prevent offending. Maybe today a potential abuser will say no. Thought for the Day – John Bell – 08/11/2012

Breaching seal of confession won’t stop abuse, says FiF by Tim Wyatt

 ANY attempt to allow priests to breach the confidentiality of sacramental confession would be wrong, and could lead to priests’ being imprisoned, the traditional Catholic organisation Forward in Faith (FiF) has warned.

FiF’s formal submission to a Church of England working party on the seal of the confessional urges the House of Bishops, the Archbishops’ Council, and the General Synod not to remove the ban on revealing what has been said in confession. In the sacrament of reconciliation, or penance, a priest is obliged never to disclose what is confessed by a penit­ent. Canon 113 of the Code of 1603 expresses this, hut, the FiF submission says: “The obligation was not created by Canon 113 … The Seal is intrinsic to the sacrament.”

‘lite working party has been convened to examine whether an exception to this seal should be made if someone confesses to child abuse or other serious criminal offences.

The Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson, on behalf of FiF, writes that the C of E “does not have the authority to alter” the sacraments, as they “belong to the whole Church, not just the Church of England”.

“We are confident that, if repeal of this (Canon [113] were to remove such protection is it might offer to a priest, or (even worse) if the General Synod were to seek to impose a duty of reporting, priests would go to prison nr accept ecclesiastical penalties rather than break the seal,” Bishop Robinson says.

FiF says that it is not aware of any case where a priest’s breaking the confidentiality of confession would have protected a child or vulnerable adult. Without such evidence, any change would “simply be an emotional gesture”, Bishop Robinson writes.

Furthermore, he says that if it became known that priests could pass on any details of offending told to them in confession, abusers would be less likely to seek the counsel of a priest in the sacrament, and therefore not be told to hand themselves in to the secular authorities.

FiF says that under the current practice, a priest should withhold absolution from a penitent if he or she confesses to a serious crime until the penitent reports the crime to the police.

Instead of amending the canons, FiF urges the working party to recommend additional training for priests in the ministry of sacra­mental confession and the need to urge penitents to report themselves to the police.

Last November, the General Synod discussed the seal during a debate on clergy guidelines (General Synod, 21 November). The then Prolocutor of the Canterbury Convocation, the Ven. Christine Hardman, said that the Church was “well aware” of the tensions between the “sensitive area of the absolute confidentiality of the confessional” and “the responsibility of the Church to protect children and vulnerable adults”.

Sir, — I am in much agreement with the comments on the seal of the confessional made by Forward in Faith (News, 30 October). Indeed, I was the author of an article in the Ecclesiastical Law Journal ((1990) 2 Ecc LJ 84) setting out the legal basis for that seal. Nevertheless, if the Church is to have credibility, especi­ally in relation to safeguarding, it is essential that the circumstances in which a claim to the seal can be made are both clear and transparent.

The difficulty lies in defining when there is a confession and when there is not. In its comments, Forward in Faith notes the words in the Book of Common Prayer, namely, if the person coming to confession “humbly and heartily” desires absolution; indeed, these words are repeated in Canon B 29, paragraph 3, and seem to set down a precondition to a true confession.

Forward in Faith goes on to say: “Where genuine sorrow or amendment or both are not present, the priest should not give absolution, because the confession is not real” (emphasis supplied). Later, again, they say: “Absolution should not be given until [the penitent has gone to the police as instructed by the priest]. Is that confession up to that point a real confession? Potentially it is, and becomes so if the penitent acts on the priest’s instruction” (emphasis supplied).

These quotations seem to be a recognition that in such cases there is no actual confession (either in the theological or legal sense) until absolution is given. That being so, in such cases there can be no confession in relation to which the seal of the confessional can attach.

A similar point may be made about joke “confessions” and sham “confessions” where, to take the example of an actual case, an abuser purported to confess to his priest only because he realised the priest was about to discover his behaviour and he wanted to silence him What, too, if the confession is heard by a priest not authorised to do so under Canon B 29, paragraph 4?

All this emphasises the need for proper training for any priest who is to hear auricular confession, a point strongly made by Forward in Faith itself. RUPERT BURSELL QC

From the Revd Geoffrey Squire SSC Sir, — I read with interest and concern the suggestion that Church of England priests (and only C of E priests) should break the seal of the confessional when a confession of child abuse or other serious crime is confessed. Apart from other factors, I believe that this could prevent the offenders’ being brought to justice, and, more importantly, allow further abuse to take place.

Some years ago, when away with a group of young people, an im­mature and nervous boy of 13 asked me whether it was right that what­ever anyone told a priest he would never tell anyone else. I told him that that only applied to what people said in sacramental confession, and it was called the seal of the confes­sional. But I also told him that if someone wished to discuss some­thing in confidence with a priest, it would usually be very unprofes­sional if he spoke about it to others.

From the outset, I realised that there was something troubling the boy, but I did not wish to interrog­ate him or to put words into his mouth. After a few days of listening to him and gently asking questions, I knew the name of the person who was causing him problems, and sus­pected child abuse.

After the group event had ended, he would telephone me late at night. It was obvious that he wanted to tell me something, but could not bring himself to say it. I contacted the Diocesan Child Protection Officer, and he suggested leaving it a couple of days to see if he phoned again with further information, and, if nothing happened, I should contact the social services in his area and tell them what I had told him.

That I did, but they already knew a bit about the situation. Two days later, a man was arrested and charged with abusing the boy.

The boy might have remained . silent about his abuse if I had been heavy-handed about reporting it, especially if the word “police” had been used; his abuser might never have been brought to justice, and more children might have been abused. But being patient, and listening and talking with him for about eight days, meant that all quickly fell into place, and it hap­pened without my having to break confidence by reporting what he said.

This was not a matter of the seal of the confessional, but there were similarities. If a new state or church law required everyone to report child abuse, at what stage could it be claimed that “I knew about” any abuse and would be committing a criminal offence by not reporting it? Things are rarely that black-and­white. I suspect that more confes­sions are heard by Roman Catholic priests than Anglican priests; so we could have a two-tier obligatory reporting policy.

seal 4In the Roman Catholic Church:

 Irish priests say they will disobey new confession box law on child abuse

Irish Justice Minister presents mandatory reporting law to parliament- POLL

Irish priests have vowed to defy a new law forcing them to report details of sexual abuse revealed in the confessional box.

Ireland’s Justice Minister Alan Shatter is to introduce new legislation which will force the clergy to reveal all details disclosed in confession.

But priests have vowed to defy the law despite the threat of a 10-year jail sentence after the introduction of the mandatory reporting legislation.

The 800 strong Association of Catholic Priests has even told the Irish Independent newspaper that its members will flout the Shatter law.

Spokesman Fr Sean McDonagh told the paper: “I certainly wouldn’t be willing to break the seal of confession for anyone — Alan Shatter particularly.”

Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin Raymond Field said: “The seal of the confessional is inviolable as far as I am concerned, and that’s the end of the matter.”

Under the new law, every person in the state is obliged to report suspected sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults to police.

Minister Shatter said: “I would expect that if there was someone going to confession who was a serial sex abuser, I don’t know how anyone could live with their conscience if they didn’t refer that to the gardai (police).”

Shatter’s draft legislation, to be introduced later this year, has already drawn a strong response from the church.

Fr McDonagh also recalled to the Irish Independent how a New Zealand Columban priest, Fr Francis Douglas, was tortured to death by the Japanese during World War Two because he refused to reveal information received in confession about the Filipino guerrillas.

“He is held up to us as a model of how you deal with this extraordinary sacrament. You shouldn’t put into legislation something that cannot be enforced. It makes a mockery of the legislation,” he said.

“Confessions are held in private so that priests do not know who is in the confessional box.

“I would question whether the mandatory reporting requirement will stop even one case of child sexual abuse.”

In response, Minister Shatter again highlighted the failure of the Catholic Church authorities to act on warnings from victims – and the movement of priests accused of abuse from parish to parish.

“As someone who doesn’t frequent confession, I don’t know what information people share in confessions,” said Shatter.

“But I don’t think anyone has a substantial knowledge about numbers of paedophiles sharing their exploits through the confessional and being given absolution for it.

The priest hearing the confession must judge what is the best way forward in the particular case. That said, in general I think the only choice the priest has is to refuse absolution (for the time being), since conditional absolution like all sacraments cannot be bound to future events, but only to past or present ones. Here’s a useful summary concerning the denial of absolution: “Elements of Moral Theology” by John J. Elmendorf
Absolution must be denied (1) when there is no evidence of a determination to amend; (2) when restitution or satisfaction is refused; (3) when the remedies directed are refused, or previously proposed remedies have not been employed, especially when evil habits are concerned, and no special contrition is exhibited on account of the new sin; (4) when there is evident unwillingness to forgive others; (5) when perseverance in evil ways is shown by an unwillingness to avoid the proximate occasions of sin, or of giving occasion to others’ sin, those occasions being voluntary and not necessary.

… (4) Habitual sinners may be absolved only if there seem to be full purpose of amendment of life; but if there have been neglect of previously prescribed discipline, absolution should surely be deferred until sincerity has been more fully evinced than by the feeling, perhaps a transient one, shown at the time of confession.

It guess that on a first time confession that seems to indicate true contrition a priest could reasonably absolve a child abuser, imposing the punishment for their crimes following from handing themselves over to the secular authorities as part of the penance. However, clearly there is no reason why a priest should allow a cycle of repeat abuse, confession and absolution. Or for that matter absolve if the perpetrator shows no intention of providing satisfaction for the crime and seeking professional treatment.

The Anglican church of Australia has done quite a bit of work on confessional and child sexual abuse.

Private confession for sexual abuse stipulates the following guidelines for absolution: Guidelines for the Hearing of Confessions and the Granting of Absolution with special reference to Child Sexual Abuse

1. Care must be taken when a penitent comes to confession that the confession is heard and absolution is pronounced according to an authorised rite of the Church.

2. The granting of absolution in confessions involving child sexual abuse is reserved to priests holding a special licence or authority from the bishop.

3. All confessions involving child sexual abuse are to be referred forthwith to a priest holding the bishop’s licence to administer absolution in such cases. In other words the priest (unless specially licensed) must decline to pronounce absolution and refer the matter on.

4. The penitent is to be given clear direction to seek help and counselling from people qualified to do so.

5. Priests holding the bishop’s licence are to receive appropriate training and to be properly informed about what professional help is available.

6. Absolution must be withheld until the priest is satisfied that there is genuine repentance and, apart from exceptional circumstances, until the penitent has reported the matter to the police or other appropriate authority .

The confessional is sealed by canon law but there seem to be some odd exceptions that I can’t quite get my head around. e.g. I think there are cases where secular law can require the seal broken.

However, apparently Anglican clergy in Ireland since 1992 have been required to inform a potential penitent who that they are bound both by church law and state law to disclose the nature of the crime to the relevant authorities. If the penitent still proceeds to divulge information in confession the cleric must by law (both in church and state) report the crime. Where a child or children may be in danger, the cleric is obliged by both church and state law to make an immediate report to the relevant authorities.

Similarly, where a psychiatric patient in the confessional makes a clear statement of intent to do harm to another or to harm themselves (especially if they have been on suicide watch) the cleric is obliged by state and church law to report it.

Criminal activity should not be made in the confessional to numb the conscience of an adult that, e.g. has raped a child. There is nothing to stop such a person from availing of confession and absolution after they have shown due remorse in going to the relevant authorities and handing themselves in.

Another options: the cleric may not give absolution and can agree a time frame for which the person should take appropriate action regarding their past or ongoing criminal activity. If the person does not report to the relevant authorities and take personal responsibility for their crime then the cleric can in good conscience go to the police/gards.

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