Confession and Safeguarding

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”.

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9 Responses to Confession and Safeguarding

  1. Stephen K says:

    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.

    Dear Father,

    I don’t assume that these guidelines are just for the purpose of ‘staying out of trouble’: I prefer to think that they reflect a genuine understanding that abuse of children is a crime and that priests have a duty of care. In which case, such guidelines, and such a prefatory confessional formula are to be welcomed. I agree with you that the issue must not be taken lightly.

  2. RSC+ says:

    As a military chaplain, I’m grateful that Rule 503 of Military Rules of Evidence is so iron-clad on this point. Nothing may be disclosed — nothing, period, full stop — without the express written consent of the person seeking counsel.

  3. David Marriott says:

    My response on Fr. Chislett’s Facebook post about this:

    Perhaps as Fr. Chadwick writes there are few Anglicans who make individual confession, even in Forward in Faith parishes (?), there would be many priests unfamiliar with the counsel that absolution might be deferred to the Bishop, which, of course, would require a consultation by the priest, instead of this new advice which effectually tells the penitent, ‘If you have done something really bad, you might think twice about telling me’, which negates the whole point of the Sacrament!

  4. I always understood that if a person confessed sins which are crimes then the priest would admonish the penitent to “turn himself in.”

    • David Marriott says:

      Patrick, I agree completely with this counsel.

    • Stephen K says:

      David and Patrick, of course it is right that a priest should urge a penitent who has confessed a crime to turn themselves in: that would be an element and a demonstration of true remorse and their desire for restitution/justice. Without this intention and action a penitent’s repentance is qualified, or compromised, or null and void. It is natural of course for someone to shrink from having to face a penalty, including imprisonment and public shame, but then this becomes another test for the person. If you really think you should not have murdered your husband, or raped that child, then surely your conscience is doing its job, and you will want to be cleansed by your passion, n’est-ce pas?

      I’ve thought about my dear co-readers’ comments and I think a few further points can be made on this subject.

      Firstly, the prefatory remarks do not read to me as discouraging a truly penitent person from confessing a sin they have committed but as advising everyone, truly penitent or not, that the wellbeing and safety of either themselves or another person will not be left in jeopardy by any failure of the priest;

      secondly, it is not aimed solely at the sins of the confessing – for they themselves might be victims or witnesses – but at the revelation that they themselves or someone else is unsafe and needs protection etc. I imagine that it is envisaged that information of this kind will undoubtedly sometimes, deliberately or inadvertently, accompany the confession of personal sins, and to the extent that there are people who have turned to a priest in the context of the confessional – and I am one – to speak of something – it need not be criminal, and in my case was not – that was troubling them, then a cautionary preface like this might even reassure such a person that what they have to say will be treated conscientiously and responsibly;

      thirdly, as I understand it, grace does not ride roughshod over free will – the point of the sacrament is a spiritual reconciliation: if a person is disingenuous or dissembling, it becomes a case of form not substance, and that is not the priest’s fault nor would he mostly realise it. One of the problems highlighted in the Royal Commission in this country (i.e. Australia) was the entrenched and enculturated attitude of the RC Church (and to a lesser extent the C of E Church) that their religious structures were beyond the reach of the civil law. As if Christendom, where bishops ruled like kings over independent fiefdoms, still prevailed. Centuries of custom and theology and crude catechesis had made laypeople supinely subservient to the clergy, giving them an unhealthy deference and investing them with haloes they did not deserve. The procedures by which traditional sacraments are administered can change, and that they should change to accommodate deep flaws in the way Church leaders regarded and treated physical and psychological hurts by people against other people that it came to know about – by whatever means – seems to me to be an eminently good thing.

      fourthly, the churches are incarnate, i.e. they are firmly in and part of this world and the particular society in which they operate. Any insistences on moral and legal untouchability or pastoral aloofness have no place, and cannot be countenanced when, through the scandals of their own sins, and most of all the dishonesty or deception of so many leaders, they are revealed as wearing no clothes. The sacrament of confession may have played only a lesser part in the greater pattern of concealment we have seen where the sexual abuse of children and minors is concerned, but I see the prefatory remarks here as serving as a meaningful signal that this Church in particular (i.e. the C of E) will not be, and is not prepared to be, anymore a dumb bystander to injustice and crime.

      Finally, I don’t see this as causing a drop-off in confessions – they are already significantly less common I think – and if anything I think will attract some respect from many people, including me. I really do applaud the C of E in this.

  5. Hello all,
    I’m confused as to the facts here. On paper, the Church of England is the same institution that existed before the Reformation; civil and ecclesiastical law have changed before and since. Strictly speaking, *can* the State regulate sacramental confession, whether or not it *should* have that power? Or is that a reductionist way of putting things?

  6. Rev22:17 says:

    Fr. Anthony,

    Greetings — super blog!

    You wrote: Where God builds his parish, the Devil sets up his chapel just nearby – an old French expression.

    Very interesting. I had heard this notion in a verse attributed to British author Daniel Defoe (13 September 1660-24 April 1731).

    Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
    The Devil always builds a chapel there;
    And ’twill be found, upon examination,
    The latter has the largest congregation.

    Of course, Defoe may well have borrowed the idea from an earlier source. It would be interesting to find its origin.


  7. Neil Hailstone says:

    These guidelines are wrong. They will deter people who have committed serious sins from seeking help in the Sacrament of Confession. They are in line with the inflexible approach to sin found in fundamentalist circles. Presumably in this case fundamentalist ‘liberal’ circles.

    The circumstances in which individuals are lead into serious sin are often very complex. Perhaps I should have written that human life is very complex.

    In my experience and that of other Anglo Catholics attending the Sacrament it is a blessing to sinners that FIF Confessors are well educated trained, experienced priests. I do not think it right that they should read out the bureaucratic warning set out in the guidance. Thankfully the Society whose Orders and Ministry are recognised by the NCC of which I am a member have no intention of complying with any of this warning if required to administer it.

    I know that the approach to serious criminal behaviour must be very carefully dealt with by Confessors. Like most people I do believe that there are instances when a Confessor should make every effort to persuade a penitent to voluntarily approach the police. In some circumstances not.

    The UK does not have a Statute of Limitation for Criminal Offences. Do the writers of the warning consider crimes from decades past and of a minor safeguarding nature to be included, what about a penitent acting under extreme duress from another party. I am in fact strongly pro Law and Order my first career having been as a police officer. That said not everyone needs to be placed before a court of criminal law for offences committed. I would also refer the authors of this warning to the RCC Catechism on the question of Imputation of sin.

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