Despite the “seal of confession,” priests in the Church of England are being required to notify authorities if a penitent confesses to committing sexual abuse. Therefore, new guidelines have the priest telling the penitent beforehand not to confess anything that the priest might have to reveal!
Some churches practice confession and absolution, in which an individual with a troubled conscience confesses his or her sins privately to a minister, who then offers counsel and communicates Christ’s forgiveness. Though they have different theological understandings of this practice, Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, and Anglicans all do this. And their ministers take strict vows at their ordination never to reveal the sins that have been confessed. Even ministers in other churches, who do not have this practice, hold to rigorous standards of confidentiality in their exercise of pastoral care.
The law usually recognizes the pastoral obligation of confidentiality. Thus, pastors are not required to testify as witnesses against someone whom they have counseled or whose confession they have heard.
See Alfred Hitchcock’s movie I Confess, in which a priest hears the confession of a murderer, only to be framed for that murder himself–but he never violates the seal of confession! Other movies and TV shows have also used this device. Now the normal practice if a penitent confesses a crime is that the pastor counsels the person to turn himself in, to the point of denying him absolution if he does not. True repentance is marked by accepting the punishment that is due for the transgression.
At any rate, due to the appalling way some churches have covered up sexual abuse, including by ministers themselves, some countries, such as Australia and Ireland, are changing the law to require that priests inform authorities whenever they learn about sexual mistreatment, including from the confessional. And the Church of England is working out changes to the millennia-old practice of the seal of confession.
But consider this guideline, not only from a theological perspective and from a pastoral care perspective, but from a logical perspective.
From Olivia Rudgard, in the London Telegraph, Christians told not to confess sex abuse secrets to Church of England clergy because they will tell the police:
Christians have been told not to confess sex abuse secrets to Church of England clergy because they will tell the police.
Guidance from the diocese of Canterbury says clergy must tell penitents that if their confession “raises a concern about the wellbeing or safeguarding”, the priest will be “duty bound” to tell the “relevant agencies”.
Church of England canon law states that information divulged during confession must be kept secret.The issue was raised during the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse earlier this year, amid concerns that evidence of abuse could be kept from the authorities.
The national church is currently considering the issue after a review was launched in 2014, and a working group is due to discuss in December.
Julian Hills, Diocesan Secretary, said the guidance was formulated after a case where someone told a member of the clergy about abuse during the confessional. . . .
Mr Hills said the situation could force a priest to “choose between their responsibility to protect someone from harm and the usual requirement of confidentiality”.
He insisted that the arrangement did not “abolish the seal of the confessional” but was “intended to advise the penitent not to divulge in confession something which would legally compromise the position of the priest”.
OK, there are the theological and professional issues about pastoral confidentiality. Let’s set those aside for a moment.
There are also pastoral care considerations. If a person is sinning by sexually abusing someone, should he be denied pastoral care? Do Christ’s atonement and His offer of forgiveness not apply to him? Should the sinner not be allowed to confess that particular sin and be prevented from being absolved for it? But let’s set those questions aside for a moment also.
Let’s stipulate that, despite all of these considerations, the pastor should inform authorities if he hears the confession of an abuser.
But doesn’t advising the penitent “not to divulge in confession something which would legally compromise the position of the priest” work against the concern to root out sexual abuse?
Shouldn’t the priest want the penitent to confess any such heinous behavior, so that he could inform the authorities and so that the victim could be rescued?
Telling someone he shouldn’t confess to his sins is another way of being silent about them!
These guidelines offer the worst possible solution: The sinner is denied the opportunity for penitence, forgiveness, and possibly a change of behavior. The minister announces that he has given up the seal of confession. And the abuse is hidden from the authorities and no one helps the victim!
Photo: Montgomery Clift as Father Logan in I Confess, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. From the 1953 non-copyrighted trailer. Original uploader was Prew at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons