The suggested breaking of the seal of confession

Church Times [London, England]

September 1, 2023

By Revd David Hadfield, Revd Rupert Bursell KC, Tom Middleton, and Anonymous

Sir, — I read Canon Judith Maltby’s letter on the breaking of the seal of the confessional for confession of sexual abuse (25 August) with interest, because I consider this debate has far wider implications for the seal generally, which have either not been recognised or, if recognised, have not been articulated by either side in the debate, so far as I have seen.

This has been carried on entirely, it seems, in the context of sexual abuse by clerics and others, which is understandable, given the gravity of the offence and the Church of England’s lamentable past failure to deal with it and seeming continued inability to do so. It is consequently also understandable that there should be calls to require any confessor who receives a confession from an abuser, confessing to what they have done, to be required to break the seal and report the abuser. The problem that I see, however, lies in this specificity. That is, by confining the debate to crimes of sexual abuse, we ignore the wider implications.

I would in no way seek to diminish the gravity of what abusers do. It is a grave sin as well as a criminal offence, and undeniably has serious and lasting consequences for the victims. It is not, however, the only such act. There are many others, murder perhaps being the most obvious example; but any crime of violence is serious and has consequences for victims and their families. Equally, crimes such as robbery and theft or fraud have victims, and can and often do have serious and lasting consequences for the victims.

It would be wholly wrong to try to debate which of these sins/crimes is the more serious or causes most harm to the victim, and I do not seek to do so or in any way diminish the harm done to those who have been abused. We have, however, recently witnessed the conviction of Lucy Letby for the murder of seven babies and the attempted murder of six others. Her crimes are heinous, and the families and others will unquestionably suffer for the the rest of their lives. This is an extreme example, but, unless I have misunderstood what is being argued by those seeking to relax the seal of the confessional in cases of sexual abuse, a priest hearing Lucy Letby’s confession would not, had she confessed to what she had done, be required to disclose what they had been told.Advertisement

I cannot, with all due respect, see why this should be the case, because the logic being applied by those wanting mandatory reporting seems to me to apply equally to any serious crime, in particular, perhaps, to crimes against the person. Logically, therefore, they also should be subject to mandatory disclosure.

As I remarked at the beginning of this letter, I have not seen any discussion of the wider implications that I identify, but I cannot think that I am the only person to recognise them. They need to be addressed, because if one exception is made to the rules relating to the seal, I have little doubt that other exceptions will be argued for; it is the way of things, and what has started out as a debate about a single exception may well bring about an end to the seal generally.

That may or may not be desirable, but we need to go into this with our eyes open.

St Mary’s Cottage
Windmill Lane
East Grinstead RH19 2DS

Sir, — Canon Maltby rightly draws attention to Forward in Faith’s failure to mention the study of abusing priests in the Irish Roman Catholic Church; it should be noted, too, that the evidence from the Roman Catholic Church in America (also omitted) is equally compelling and fraught.

She omits, however, to draw attention to the words (which she quotes verbatim from The Society’s arguments) that restrict their evidence to “penitents in the Church of England”. I do not believe that such Anglican penitents are different in their behaviours or confessions from those in the Roman Catholic Church.

Why, therefore, does Forward in Faith restrict its defence in such a way? Is it naïvety, or is it a deliberate attempt to obscure the issue? In either event, it leaves their arguments deeply flawed.

Pear Tree Cottage
Buckinghamshire MK18 2BU

Sir, — I am grateful to you for your coverage (News, 16 August) of The Society’s submission to the Government on the mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse and the seal of confession, and to Canon Judith Maltby for her thoughtful letter (same issue) picking up on some of the issues arising from that submission. Three points spring immediately to my mind in response to Canon Maltby.

First, The Society would welcome any support that other Catholic-minded Anglicans can provide on this important matter, while always remaining mindful of the Church’s urgent need to transform its support for survivors and victims of sexual abuse. There has not yet been an opportunity to agree a common position across the various strands of the Catholic Anglican tradition in the Church of England, but this exchange of correspondence could function as a catalyst for that to happen.

Second, the purpose of the submission was to provide an easily digestible overview of The Society’s position rather than a literature review or a comprehensive account of the history and doctrine of the Christian practice of confession. Further, it is important to note that the context of the deplorable recent practices in this regard in Ireland — and, indeed, in parts of North America — was entirely different from our own.

Third, we are in no way advocating a position of no debate. That would not serve the intricacies of the topic well. We simply cannot, however, countenance unilateral action on such a fundamental aspect of our faith. It speaks to the core of our Catholic identity and reminds us that the sacraments belong to the whole Church, not just in the present day, but through the ages.

Secretary to The Society’s Council of Bishops
St Andrew’s, Holborn
5 St Andrew Street
London EC4A 3AF

Sir, — As a layman, I have not noticed anyone yet point out that permitting individual priests to exercise their private judgement about when to break the seal of confession is potentially disastrous, both for an individual penitent and for trust generally in the clergy and this ministry. The disaster could be caused by good intentions but misjudgement. Equally, however, we have plenty of evidence that individual priests do not always have good intentions.

The confessor is in a position of power over the penitent, who makes themselves vulnerable and is conventionally instructed to leave no weighty matter on their conscience unconfessed, at risk of voiding the absolution.

The Church rightly limits the power of the confessor by (a) the right of the penitent to seek a second opinion from another confessor; and (b) requiring the confessor to disclose nothing learnt in confession without the penitent’s permission. A priest can, however, withhold absolution until the penitent has confessed to the police (for example).

I was a frequent and extremely vulnerable penitent in my late teens and early twenties, distressed about my homosexuality and suffering for some of that period from clinical depression and “nervous exhaustion” and quite heavily medicated. As the law stood then, I was technically committing a crime if I had sex with a man before was 21 (as my sexual partner would be, of course). And, at one point, I certainly found myself imagining one or two things had happened that hadn’t.

Surviving that period would have been harder under such a regime as some may be tempted to accept now out of fear for the Church’s reputation. I was lucky to have a reasonable understanding of how the Church of England (as distinct from the Roman Catholic Church) worked and what it taught, and I found “discreet and learned ministers” for confession who behaved impeccably. I was able to be choosy, which not everyone in a crisis can be. Even those priests sometimes didn’t “get it” and gave advice that I later thought it better to forget about. The clergy can and do blunder.Advertisement

The clergy can also be arrogant. At a church meeting, I heard two priests (not from the tradition represented by Forward in Faith, and so possibly more likely to receive other people’s confessions than to make their own) talking about the circumstances under which they would break the seal. I was horrified. This was under the existing state of canon law. They were middle-aged and fairly well educated; but this was injudicious, to put it mildly.

And priests can be abusers. So, when a (potential) abuser receives a confession, do we wish to tool them up with power to exploit the situation? “What you have told me is very serious, and I may be obliged to inform the authorities. But, if you come back to the vicarage with me, I might not have to do that, after we’ve explored this further together in a more informal setting.”

That is an imaginary scenario. We would do well to imagine it before we read about something similar in a court report — though more likely, maybe, is the unintentional abuse of power by an inexperienced priest, or one who has their own hang-ups or baggage and/or has got themselves into a heady mix of moral panic and ego trip after a safeguarding pep talk.

The seal is a matter on which there simply should be no room for mistakes or manipulation. I doubt that the Church has been wrong to restrict the scope for the confessor’s individual judgement. Anyone who thinks otherwise seems to me to have a rose-tinted idea of what gifts the grace of ordination can supply where nature is lacking, and perhaps has little experience of being a vulnerable penitent.