Seal of the confessional cannot be compromised, says bishop

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

October 24, 2022

By Patrick Hudson and Catherine Pepinster

Bishop Paul Mason said that mandatory reporting of confessions would turn the priest “from a minister of God to an agent of the state”.

The lead bishop for safeguarding in England and Wales has said that mandatory reporting of disclosures of child abuse cannot break the seal of the confessional, because it would turn the priest “from a minister of God to an agent of the state”.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Sunday programme, the Bishop of the Forces, Paul Mason, said that the nature of the confessional was determined by “the sacredness of the relationship of any person to God and being open to forgiveness”, and so “the Church facilitates that through the intermediary of the priest”.

He said that it is “as though the priest is not there in that confessional situation”.

Bishop Mason was responding to questions on the future of confession following the final report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), published last Thursday.

Its central recommendation is mandatory reporting, which would make it a criminal offence to fail to report disclosures or clear evidence of abuse to the authorities.

The report specifies that despite arguments for “exemptions for some faith-based settings or personnel, and, in particular, in the context of sacramental confession”, no religious requirement could “ever justify the ill-treatment of children or prevent government authorities from taking measures necessary to protect children from harm”.

While the Church in England and Wales has welcomed the report, Bishop Mason said that it could not instruct priests to report confessions without undermining the sacrament.

“Because of the sacred relationship between any individual and God we simply couldn’t turn a priest from being a minister of God to an agent of the state.”

He continued: “Once a confession has been made, you can encourage the penitent to do what they should do, but afterwards it’s as though that had never taken place. The seal of the confessional is that strong.”

He said that confession provided a rare chance for communication with perpetrators, which would be lost if they knew it would not be confidential.

“If we were to have mandatory reporting and the penitents were aware that anything said under the confessional seal could be revealed then they wouldn’t avail themselves of the sacrament in the first place, and the concern is that we would lose that one opportunity to talk to one of these people to encourage them to do what they need to do.”

Nazir Afzal, chair of Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency, told The Tablet that mandatory safeguarding was already at the centre of Church safeguarding practice, but the seal of the confessional “is really challenging”.

He said that the agency would support the Church in addressing difficulties around the confessional, but “we can’t afford to focus on this … at the expense of the bigger picture”.