15 December 2017

The Anglicans are dumping the Common Ground: The Seal of the Confessional

Rumour has it that the Anglican Church in Australia is modifying or has modified the Seal of the Confessional so that Anglican Clergy may report paedophiles to the police. This happens at the same time as legal pressures, I gather, are growing in Australia to compel (all) clergy to report such offences to the police. (Unsurprisingly, similar suggestions have been made before the British Royal Commission on Sex Abuse ... but not, I think, by Anglican clergy. Tell me if I'm wrong!)

One argument brought forward is that if a child mentions such activity while confessing, they are not really confessing a sin of their own. The answer to this seems to me fairly simple. ("My dear, I need you to come to me outside this confessional and to tell me again what Uncle X did to you. Then I will be able to help both you and Uncle X properly".)

If the information in my first paragraph is accurate, then I believe that a very serious situation is arising for ecumenical dialogue, and especially for the now-pointless (but still-expensive) organisation called ARCIC. This dialogue was set up on the explicit premise that the old disagreements inherited from the Reformation period would be sorted out, and that neither 'side' would put in place new divergences. I wonder if this question of the Seal of the Confessional was ever discussed at any level of 'ecumenical dialogue', nationally or internationally.

In English Anglican Canon Law (Canon 113 of 1604, never repealed), the provisions for the Seal of the Confessional are for practical purposes the same as they are for Catholics (the Anglican canon does, I regretfully admit, permit the Seal to be broken if, otherwise, the priest himself would incur the death penalty for not reporting some matter ... but there cannot be many offences for which a priest can be strung up under modern Australian or British law).

Of course, the ARCIC understanding that neither side would introduce new divergences was bull-dozed out of the way in order to allow for the 'ordination' of women to sacerdotal ministries within most Anglican provinces. But this new divergence concering the seal of the Confessional is, in some ways, even graver. You see, with the Anglicans going down this path, things will become much more difficult for Catholic clergy who may be prosecuted for not delating paedophile penitents. Catholic clergy will have been hung out to dry by their Anglican 'friends'.

The Anglicans will also have made it easier for Catholic priests to be sent to prison for contempt of court ... because, of course, a Catholic priest in the witness box is unable even to say "I never heard that in my Confessional", because one is not allowed to say anything about what transpires there. Or even to indicate it by a nod or a wink or a hint or an allusion.

Some moralists used to argue that one could deny having heard something in the confessional by assuming "I heard it while acting as a conduit to God; I did not hear it qua Father X". But this would have the unfortunate effect of providing a court with evidence for the innocence of a guilty defendant.

And it's even nastier than that. Anglican clergy (especially but not only in the diocese of Sidney) hear very few confessions compared with the numbers that Catholic clergy hear. So the Anglicans are abandoning their Catholic 'partners in ecumenical dialogue' to be persecuted by the agents of the Zeitgeist with regard to a subject which really matters very little to the overwhelming majority of  Anglicans.

It reminds me of how some Orthodox collaborated with Stalinism in the persecution of their fellow-Christians.

Ultimately, this whole business is a symbol of the determination of the secular state to leave no corner of space or moment of time outside its own iron grip. Under cover of protecting children, Christ the King will have been even more effectively uncrowned. Am I alone in detecting here all the hallmarks of the Enemy?

Well, so be it. But it's a shame the Anglicans too are so keen to kick us in the teeth. Perhaps it's just that they find it so terribly hard to get out of the habit of persecuting us. But there is no need to worry, is there: in a century or two, with tears of emotion in their eyes, their  successors will formally apologise to our successors. That will make everything All Right, won't it?


Cherub said...

The Anglican Church of Australia has for some time now allowed the seal of the confessional to be broken in cases of reportable crimes. Don't forget that the Canons of 1602 allowed a priest to break the seal in cases where his own life is in danger.

Cherub said...

I meant 1604 Canons. But I think I might be wrong about that.

However, re Anglican Church of Australia:

See URL:http://www.anglican.ink/article/australia-lifts-seal-confession

On 2 July 2014 synod amended the existing rule that states the confession of a crime is to be kept confidential unless the person making the confession consents to a priest disclosing it. The new policy allows priests to report serious crimes if the person making the confession has not reported the offence to police and director of professional standards. A minister is only obliged to keep such an offence secret if he or she is reasonably satisfied that the penitent has already reported the offence to police.

The proposer of the motion, barrister Garth Blake, told synod the church should not act as a cloak for criminals. “It seemed to me that protecting children and the vulnerable takes precedence over the confidentiality of confessions.”

Adelaide Archbishop Jeffrey Driver told The Advertiser he would encourage his dioceses to adopt the new policy. “I understand the importance of the confessional, but on balance I believe this is a healthy step,” he said.

Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier offered background on the history of the seal of confession, including the harsh penalties for clergy who broke the seal and the understanding of the Reformers that the seal of confession was not absolute."

NB: "The bill received the backing of the full synod, but will only come into practice if ratified by the individual dioceses."

Cherub said...

Aha! Canons of 1603 and the provision for which is still Canon Law in the C of E.

Canons of the Church of England
Canons 7th edition
Section A
Section B
Section C
Section D
Section E
Section F
Section G
Section H
Section I
Supplementary material
Table of Promulgation of Canons
Amending Canons
Proviso to Canon 113 of the Code of 1603
(see Canon B 29, here)

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."

See URL: https://www.churchofengland.org/more/policy-and-thinking/canons-church-england/supplementary-material#p185

Richard Duncan said...

The idea that requiring priests to break the seal of the confessional would “protect children”, is pure humbug, and ignorant humbug at that. It assumes, first of all, that confessionals are thronged with recidivist paedophiles who routinely confess to the sin of abuse, are absolved, and then return to commit the sin again. That simply is not the case. I work in a parish where the anonymity and daily availability of confession means that it is more likely that a paedophile would choose to confess his sin here, rather than, for example, in his local parish, where the priest might know who he is and confessions might be face to face. I hear between 300 and 400 confessions each month and have been ordained for nearly five years, which means that I have heard approximately 14,000 confessions. In all that time, the issue of abuse has arise just twice, i.e. 0.01% of all the confessions I have heard. So, the first point is that we are talking about a phenomenon that is very rare indeed.

The second point is that if a paedophile were to approach the confessional, it would be because he recognised to some extent that his actions were wrong. I hope we can all agree that a priest in such a situation is in a position of tremendous responsibility, and not the least of his responsibilities is not to make the situation he is faced with any worse than it already is. Mandating a breach of the seal would do precisely that since it would mean that no paedophile would approach the confessional at all and a phenomenon which is already dogged by secrecy would be driven further underground.

The third point is that the anonymity and secrecy of the confessional means that it is one of the few forums in which victims of abuse are willing to talk about their experiences. Here, too, the priest has a tremendous responsibility. Of course, what needs to happen is for the crime to be reported to the civil authorities so that the law can take its course and the victim receive the appropriate counselling and support. But the victim may not be willing for that to happen at first, not least because he/she may have been conditioned to think of himself/herself as somehow at fault. Once again, mandatory disclosure would mean that the channel of communication offered by the confessional would be closed off and the problem driven further underground.

The final point is that the confessional provides a safe “space” in which potential abusers can talk about the temptations they may be experiencing. These are people who have not committed any crime or sin but feel the temptation to do so. Such people need counselling and help of a very particular kind and the priest will almost certainly not be in a position to offer it himself. What he can do, however, is direct the penitent towards someone who can offer the help that is need. By doing so, he may prevent the temptation from degenerating into a situation in which abuse takes place, which is the best possible thing he can do. If the potential abuser thinks he is going to be reported to the police, he will not raise the matter in the confessional, and will be left to deal with the problem on his own. You don’t need to be an expert to see what this might lead to.

A Daughter of Mary said...

When my brother was dying after a very long life of public sin and rejection of the Church, with God's grace he agreed to talk to a priest. Needless to say this was of paramount importance to me. Afterwards the priest would not even say whether my brother had "been to Confession" even though he could see how distressed I was to hear that news.

So this goes deeper than simply keeping safe the matter. It goes to the complete protection of the penitent and the priest from any intrusion. Tricky indeed when some sins have become political. Shame on the Anglicans. They appear to have lost all of their patrimony. Persecutions will come/have come.

Bos Mutissimus said...

Worse - if offenders believe they will be turned in, then it becomes a deterrent to confession at all, and they will likely go unconfessed, or even persist in sin.

Liam Ronan said...

I agree with Richard Duncan's keen observations.

In any event, I would imagine this would put an end to 'face to face' confessions.

Tommy said...

If a prisoner admits other serious offences to his or her barrister, the barrister must keep silent about this information.

It seems to be a case of trying to force the priest to break the seal of the confessional while at the same time accepting the confidentiality of the lawyer-client relationship.

Fr. VF said...

Face-to-face confession was the greatest triumph of those who sought to obliterate the Sacrament.

Albrecht von Brandenburg said...

How so, Fr VF - it was the normal mode for at least one and a half millenia.

Albrecht von Brandenburg said...

The Royal Commission steered tbe evidence away from the fact that the abuse was overwhelmimgly perpetrated by ephenophile homosexuals, NOT true paedophiles. It didn't suit the agenda. It will be interesting to see if anything is done about this.

paul said...

Let us try to clarify our expression: there is no such thing as the seal "of the confessional", but rather "of confession". The "confessional" is a post-Tridentine invention, and the seal applies to a confession wherever or in whatever circumstances it may be made. The confessional box is here an irrelevance. The seal of confession, in standard moral theological opinion, would also bind any person who happened to overhear a confession.

Over forty years ago I was taught that the seal applies to those things which are confessed with a view to absolution. If someone should say, in the course of a confession, "Mrs Smith is in hospital again and wants you to visit her", such information does not fall under the seal. We were taught that stricter moralists had taught that the confessor should ask for this information to be repeated outside "the confessional", but that this was an extreme opinion which could be safely disregarded, as the information was clearly not confessed with a view to absolution but was, on the contrary, an invitation to pastoral action. We were also taught, emphatically and clearly, that beyond the seal as such, a confessor should act with the utmost discretion in all things regarding the sacrament. So, for example, if a mother were to ask, "Did my son come to confession on Saturday?", one should by no means give an answer, even though that could be a matter of public knowledge and dozens of people may have seen him in the church. But that would be a matter of discretion, not, of course, of the seal.

Mutatis mutandis, if a minor were to reveal in confession "Daddy sometimes touches me under my dress", this is clearly not a confession by the child with a view to absolution: it is (possibly) the revelation of a crime. It would not be covered by the seal. There is no sin on the child's part. The confessor could therefore take further action without there being any question of breaking the seal. What that action might be, and how it might be taken, may be matters of very great delicacy and difficulty. But the difficulty does not directly arise from the seal of confession.

I don't reall ever hearing a confession about which the projected new laws would oblige me to reveal sin and penitent and so to break the seal of confession. If I did, I would have to suffer whatever legal penalties may be provided rather than betray a penitent--prison, hanging, whatever--because the seal is inviolable. My understanding of the seal of confession, and the need for an associated discretion, has been as above for all my priestly life, now in its fifth decade.

I was amazed that, in the Australian Royal Commission, as the commissioners have pointed out in their final report, even among archbishops agreement could not be found about exactly what the seal of confession involves, and in what precise circumstances the confessor is bound by it. That, is seems to me, is a most serious confusion that requires clarification by moralists and canon lawyers, and probably from the highest level.

In Australia, the report of the Royal Commission has pointed out that not even archbishops were