The Church of England has come up with some new legislation on confession to a priest. When a priest is to hear a confession, he has to recite to the penitent:
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.
When I first heard about this, it seemed like bureaucratic word salad, perhaps even a joke. I looked it up and here it is from the horse’s mouth Confession & safeguarding. Here I was able to find some context to this odd ruling. I imagine a scenario: the penitent is aware that his vicar is buggering choirboys, and that this fact caused him to commit a sin of anger. The confessor is bound to report the matter of paedophilia to the police.
Everything is possible, and I remember from my Roman Catholic days the stuff taught in seminaries about casuistry and everything that someone might say in the confessional. This is why we had moralists like Fr Servais Pinckaers OP (who taught me at Fribourg) who appealed to fundamental principles (finis operis / finis operantis) to guide common sense rather than edict a solution for each of the millions of possibilities that might occur. The trouble with bureaucracy is that it presumes that each priest is an imbecile and ignorant of the principles of judging a moral act.
Obviously, it’s about the institution covering its own backside from the risk of legal action from those seeking to make a packet of compensation money. Only yesterday, I found out that a vicar of a church where I was once organist had been cleared of a serious sex-abuse accusation by a jury. I had believed that he was a molester and deserved to be tarred, feathered and boiled alive! Two men made false accusations, certainly for money. The risk of legal action (especially if it is a wrongful accusation) is a nightmare, and all institutions have to take precautions.
I recently bought an electronic device and the instruction leaflet was most revealing. The device is extremely simple to use, being a Bluetooth adapter to enable music from a smartphone to be played on a hi-fi system. The safety precautions were written to cover everything, including the device being eaten! If you buy a tin of paint, you will find “Do not drink the paint“. The probability of someone drinking paint is likely to be very low, but the warning had to be made to protect against litigation. This is the world in which we live, and its tentacles extend to the priestly ministry.
I last heard a confession about ten years ago. Most people have only minor matters like sexual temptation, masturbation, anger, telling lies, perhaps some minor dishonesty with money, and suchlike. They affect the person’s conscience. The priest needs to ascertain whether the person is making a mockery of the priest and the sacrament for some perverse end, or is genuinely making efforts to become a more honest and better person. I have not encountered the case of someone using the seal of confession as a kind of “gag” in some Machiavellian plot to his own ends. It was something we discussed at seminary, and all priests fear such abuse of this Sacrament. If it is clear that there is abuse, does the seal of confession apply? If the penitent put some poison in my soup and I am not allowed to act on what I learned in confession, am I obliged to drink the poisoned soup as if I didn’t know about it? I have heard the question discussed.
There is a way out of this quagmire: do nothing for children. Abolish schools, playgrounds, scout groups, churches, everything. Keep them in glass boxes, safe from everything including social interaction! Do not accept the slightest risk of a bad person or an accident. How far would all this go? Priests could simply decide not to catechise children or hear confessions. Then there is no problem. Why not go further: close down all churches and outlaw religion – then there would be no more paedophile priests! This zero-risk policy is of course selective and hypocritical and to someone’s advantage.
There is no answer for every possibility. You need fundamental principles and the use of discernment and common sense. It has always been painful to me to hear confessions, because I suffer from hyper-empathy and become too emotionally involved with the person. And so the Church invented the confessional with little trapdoors that you open and close between one penitent and the next. A factory… Increased productivity… As a priest, what can I say to help a person whose life is unknown to me? Spiritual direction is all too often based on deceit or poor understanding of psychology. Perhaps we can just count on the penitent being sincere, and presume the best intentions as we give Absolution.
The Sacrament of Penance is something instituted by Christ and practiced in the Church since the beginning. It requires self-knowledge as well as openness to the quest for self-knowledge (or absence thereof) of the penitent. Not all priests have that quality, and it is something bishops need to be very vigilant about. It is not for nothing that not all priests receive faculties for confession in their canonical licences. We don’t need to be saints (though that helps), but we have to be able to relate to persons and discern sincerity or bullshit as the case may be.
A Church should issue guidelines. We in the ACC have our own in our canon law and various dispositions issued by our synods. We too have to protect ourselves from the trouble with the law that perverse and deceitful people can bring us. By building up the barriers, we become cold and aloof. Where God builds his parish, the Devil sets up his chapel just nearby – an old French expression. Where any good is done, there will always be something less pleasant just around the corner.
It is easy to make fun of the bureaucracy. It is easy for me to point fingers because I have next to no pastoral ministry as a priest. I can see the nightmare. Perhaps the Church of England, having issued these guidelines to satisfy the need to stay out of trouble, could offer a real spiritual and psychological formation for priests who will be called to hear confessions in England’s cathedrals and parish churches. It is something that cannot be taken lightly in seminaries and parishes where new priests “do their apprenticeship”.