Church accused of ignoring abuse victims as ‘seal of confessional’ upheld

The Church of England is ignoring abuse victims, survivors claim, after it rejected a report saying that clergy should report sex abuse confessions to police.

The seal of the confessional is a priest’s obligation under canon law to hear a person’s confession of sin, or imagined sin, in complete confidence.

Under these rules, nothing that a priest is told during will be repeated or disclosed under any circumstances. This is also the rule of the Roman Catholic Church.

In 2015 the House of Bishops and the Archbishop’s Council commissioned a working party to assess this law in relation to safeguarding and protecting victims from sexual abuse.

The result was a report published today [WEDS] which concluded that the Church of England would uphold the confidentiality of confession – despite the urging of the Archbishop of York.

However the working party decided against abolishing the seal of the confessional – or even qualifying it with a loophole that priests had to report disclosures of abuse.

Now, unless Church of England’s bishops decide differently next week when they consider the working group’s report, led by the Bishop of Durham, confessions of criminal acts will not automatically be reported to police.

Abuse survivors reacted with frustration and dismay to the working group’s report – which was published a year later than its schedule of March 2018.

Phil Johnson, chair of the campaign group, Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors (MACSAS), said that the Church of England’s failure to admit agree that abuse disclosed during confession should be reported shows that the institution “has missed a golden opportunity to take the moral high-ground”.

“The Church of England is a law unto themselves… they are far more concerned about reputational damage than they are about the welfare of children and all the victims who come forward and disclose abuse. The danger here is that the perpetrators and not the victims are being protected.”

Gilo, a survivor of sexual abuse and campaigner for reform within the church, added thatthe confessional seal “continues to hide abusers under a cloak of secrecy that has for so long bedevilled the church’s culture. Any child protection policy qualified in this way with ring-fencing of religious ritual is bonkers.”

He added:

“It’s interesting to me that all the way through my case – they ignored any questions around the confession to such an extent that they totally blanked abuse by a well known figure (who became a bishop) who used confession in abusive and grooming techniques. It’s as if they just don’t want to hear any of our questions about confession and how it can be used.”

In 2014, Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, argued the seal should not apply in child abuse cases. “How can you hear a confession about somebody abusing a child and the matter must be sealed up and you mustn’t talk about it?” he said.

The seal of confessional has previously come under scrutiny during hearings related to the ongoing Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA). Legal experts and survivors have said that clerical abuse could have been stopped had priests reported confessions.

The working party failed to reach “a common mind” on the issue. Instead, it recommended training for priests on how to deal with disclosures of criminal acts.

The church’s guidelines say that if someone discloses in confession that he or she has committed a serious crime such as child abuse, “the priest must require the penitent to report his or her conduct to the police or other statutory authority. If the penitent refuses to do so, the priest should withhold absolution.”

However Graham Tilby, National Safeguarding Adviser at the Church of England, disagreed with the report’s findings.

He said: I remain of the view that the Seal does offer an opportunity for those who have been abused to seek confession and come to an understanding with the Confessor and God that it was not their fault.

“Indeed, having taken part in facilitating many of the focus groups with those who hear confession regularly, I was struck by their evidence and the passion in which some of them articulated it.

“Indeed, increasingly this matter has become a matter for conscience for myself, namely that whilst I can the see the benefits for the many, I cannot in my professional capacity defend the Seal where it might actually allow the continued perpetration of abuse against a child.”

Written by:  Gabriella Swerling,

First published 08.05.19:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *