This afternoon, the diocese of Canterbury issued the following statement on Confession & Safeguarding. Below this we have reproduced the section within the diocesan guidance on safeguarding which relates to confession.
Confession & safeguarding
Following enquiries about the Diocesan Safeguarding guidelines in relation to confession, the Diocese has issued the following statement…
“Safeguarding children and vulnerable adults must be our highest priority and is at the heart of all our responsibilities,” said Julian Hills, Diocesan Secretary. “While there have been only a tiny number of criminal cases in which the seal of the confession has been in issue, it is unclear whether a criminal court would favour the responsibility to protect someone from abuse or the requirement of a priest to maintain confidentiality. The decision to issue this guidance arose out of a genuine situation where, during confession, a penitent shared with a priest information about ongoing abuse. In this case, the legal and moral position of the priest was called into question. It was therefore felt by the Diocesan Safeguarding Management Group that clergy must have clear guidance on how to manage situations where the seal of confession may be brought into conflict with their safeguarding responsibilities.
“This guidance has not – as some have claimed – ‘abolished the Seal of the Confessional.’ Rather, it is intended to advise the penitent not to divulge in confession something which would legally compromise the position of the priest – and therefore require that priest to choose between their responsibility to protect someone from harm and the usual requirement of confidentiality.
“The guidance was drafted in early 2015, after seeking independent legal advice and in consultation with the then Acting Head of Delivery for the National Safeguarding Team. We understand that this issue is being considered nationally and that it is due to be discussed by the House of Bishops in December.”
This statement relates to the following section, which can be found on pg.33 of the Guidelines:
The Bishop emphasises that:
No priest should hear confession on a regular basis unless he/she is under the discipline of the confessional themselves (i.e. confession is part of their own spiritual practice and they are under supervision).
Any priest hearing a confession, regularly or otherwise, must say prior to hearing that confession the following statement of confidentiality and safeguarding:
“If you touch on any matter in your confession that raises a concern about the wellbeing or safeguarding of another person or yourself, I am duty bound to pass that information on to the relevant agencies, which means that I am unable to keep such information confidential.”
Extract from “Safeguarding Children and Vulnerable Adults from Harm”, (page 33, April 2015).
A particular issue regarding confidentiality is raised by the practice of formal confession. The HOB Safeguarding Children Policy offers the following guidance:
“It is possible that relevant information may be disclosed in the particular context of confession.
It is in everyone’s interest to recognise the distinction between what is heard in formal confession, however this might take place, which is made for the quieting of conscience and intended to lead to absolution, and disclosures made in pastoral situations. For this reason, it is helpful if confessions are normally heard at advertised times, or by other arrangements, or in some way differentiated from a general pastoral conversation or meeting for spiritual direction. A stole might be worn and a liturgy should be used.
Canon law constrains a priest from disclosing details of any crime or offence which is revealed in the course of formal confession: however there is some doubt as to whether this absolute privilege is consistent with the civil law. Where a penitent’s own behaviour is at issue, the priest should not only urge the person to report it to the police or the local authority social care, if that is appropriate, but may judge it necessary to withhold absolution. In such a case the priest may consider it necessary to alert the Bishop to his or her decision in order to safeguard himself or herself and seek advice on the issues, though the penitent’s details would not be shared without their permission. The priest may also judge it appropriate to encourage the penitent to speak personally to the Bishop.”
(HOB Safeguarding Children Policy, p. 35).
Although this national church guidance specifies issues of concern relating to children it applies equally to adults.
The Bishop emphasises that: No priest should hear confession on a regular basis unless he/she is under the discipline of the confessional themselves (i.e. confession is part of their own spiritual practice and they are under supervision). Any priest hearing a confession, regularly or otherwise, must say prior to hearing that confession the following statement of confidentiality and safeguarding:
“If you touch on any matter in your confession that raises a concern about the wellbeing or safeguarding of another person or yourself, I am duty bound to pass that information on to the relevant agencies, which means that I am unable to keep such information confidential”.