Defence of seal needs more rigour

Church Times [London, England]

August 25, 2023

By Canon Judith Maltby

Sir, — In no way do I wish to minimise the ethical complexities surrounding breaking the seal of confession to those of us in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England. Any discussion, however, must take place in full acknowledgement of the catastrophic safeguarding failures of the Church and its chronic poor performance in incorporating learning from external reviews or inquiries.

I had hoped for a more substantial defence of the seal from The Society’s submission to the IICSA response unit at the Home Office (News, 16 August). Disappointingly, the submission is thin on evidence.

The Society bishops state: “[It is a] a remote contingency, and unproven concern, that perpetrators will abuse the Seal. . . We are not aware of examples of penitents in the Church of England alleging that the ‘process’ of Confession has been in some way misused by priests to cover up instances of child sexual abuse nor indeed of the existence of any other types of such evidence” (my italics).

Two things:

First, “We are not aware . . .” Being “not aware” is not the same as being confident, especially given the terrible history of collusion and cover-up in safeguarding failures. Did The Society conduct an extensive survey of their members and perhaps the wider Catholic constituency in the Church of England? Perhaps this was done, and it would be helpful if the authors shared the evidence that underpins that statement. An appended letter from one priest, however faithful, experienced and articulate, is not an extensive evidence base.

Second, it is “an unproven concern, that perpetrators will abuse the Seal. . . we are unaware . . . of the existence of any types of such evidence.” Some familiarity with the key professional literature in this area would include Dr Marie Keenan’s study of abusing priests in the Irish Roman Catholic Church, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church (Oxford, 2012).

The majority of abusing priests whom she interviewed for her study reported that they had disclosed their abuse of children in the context of sacramental confession. But Dr Keenan found that, instead of its acting as a deterrent, it was exceptional for them to be advised to report themselves, or even to be told that they should stop. On the contrary, her study shows how sacramental confession acted as a “safe space” for abusers and enabled them to continue their abuse. Would the Society bishops let us know the professional literature that they consulted in composing their submission to the Home Office?

In mandatory reporting drawn from the confessional, distinctions need to be made between (a) victims or survivors who are adults who need the confessional as a safe space to make such a disclosure — this is the pastoral emphasis rightly made in the appended letter to The Society’s submission (although problematic if the abuser is still alive); (b) disclosures from children; and (c) disclosures from abusers. It would be good to see these distinctions articulated and addressed.

For some, however, such context-based differentiations or evidence/outcome-based arguments are irrelevant, because they believe that there are no circumstances whatsoever in which breaking the seal is a lesser evil than failure to take action that could stop a child abuser. Is that really what underpins opposition to mandatory reporting of child abuse disclosed in sacramental confession? If so, it would help this debate to state that clearly.

Chaplain, Fellow, and Dean of Welfare
Corpus Christi College
Oxford OX1 4JF