Today the Church of England issued a press release on the working party report into the Ministry of Confession. We have reproduced the Press Release below, and also an extract from the Interim Statement. We will issue a further post in due course.
Working party report into the Ministry of Confession
The Church of England has released a working party report into the Ministry of Confession.
Interim Statement: The Seal of the Confessional 08 May 2019
In recent decades, churches around the world have begun to face the many ways in which they have failed to keep people safe from abuse and failed to respond well to those who have suffered abuse. Listening to their voices has raised some significant questions about the ‘seal of the confessional’. This became evident, for instance, in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia, and there has been discussion in the UK context as well.
Two situations in particular have been a focus for attention. The first is where the person confesses to sins that include abuse of a child or vulnerable person. Why should the normal duty on a priest to report such information appropriately not apply? The second is where it is claimed that if the person confessing their sins has referred to abuse committed by them or by someone else, that cannot then be repeated in another context, such as a statement to the police. This is simply wrong: the ‘seal of the confessional’ applies to the priest who hears the confession, not to the person who makes it.
In response to these concerns, the Archbishops’ Council and the House of Bishops of the Church of England commissioned a Working Party on the Seal of the Confessional. It first met in 2015 and completed its report in 2017. As well as examining legal, historical and theological perspectives, it received evidence from survivors of abuse and from clergy who have extensive experience of the ministry of confession.
At present, the ‘seal of the confessional’ is upheld in the Church of England’s ecclesiastical law. The Working Party did not reach a consensus as to whether this should change. The diversity of view within the Working Party would be reflected more widely in the Church of England. Some Anglicans feel very strongly that the ministry of confession is an integral part of the life of the church, and that its proper practice is inseparable from the unqualified observance of the seal. Some observe from their experiences that the Seal of the Confessional can offer comfort to survivors of abuse who, trusting in the absolute discretion it promises, may confide in a priest for the first time and by so doing find that they are able to unburden themselves and begin the process of healing. Others feel very strongly that the church cannot continue with any aspect of its practice that stops information being passed on which could prevent future abuse or enable past abusers to be brought to justice. The House of Bishops has been giving these issues very careful consideration.
The Working Party was, however, unanimous in its recommendations in a number of key areas. One was for improvements to training on the ministry of confession in relation to safeguarding issues, with training itself becoming obligatory for all those ordained as priests, since any priest might be asked to do this. Another was for the appointment of an adviser on the ministry of reconciliation in each diocese who can be a point of reference for training, supervision and advice.
The House of Bishops is fully supportive of these recommendations. Addressing them has required consultation with a number of different groups and individuals. Further information will be given in due course about how the agreed recommendations of the Working Party’s report will be taken forward.