(Ch Times) Church of England General Synod will debate the confidentiality of the confessional

The “absolute confidentiality” afforded to disclosures made under the seal of confession will be a matter for debate in the General Synod this month.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said last week that he had “every sympathy” with the view, expressed by a survivor who reported abuse to the Cahill Inquiry…, that disclosures that gave rise to safeguarding concerns should not be treated as confidential.

Dr Sentamu told The Times: “If somebody tells you a child has been abused, the confession doesn’t seem to me a cloak for hiding that business. How can you really hear a confession about somebody abusing a child and the matter must be sealed up and you mustn’t talk about it?

“When a child reports abuse, you have an obligation – a duty – to take the matter to the police. If the person who has done it comes and tells you ‘I’ve abused someone, but I’m in a confessional now,’ it needs teasing out. I have listened to those who have been abused, and what I’ve heard leads me to ask a question: ‘Are we really serious about what Jesus said about children or not?'”

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4 comments on “(Ch Times) Church of England General Synod will debate the confidentiality of the confessional

  1. tjmcmahon says:

    What I have never understood is why a requirement for turning onself in to the authorities is not part of the penance when a serious crime is confessed. Does the priest say, in the case of a robber, “you are absolved of all your sins, it is ok to keep the money, invest in wisely, say 3 Our Fathers, go in peace”?
    It seems to me that a reasonable penance for severe crimes is that the penitent turn themselves in, and that not following through on the penance would release the priest from the necessity to maintain confidentiality.
    Of course, another aspect of this is what to do with the bishops who know which priests and church officials do such things, keep it quiet for the “good of the church” and shift them around between parishes in hopes that no one catches on. But then, John Chrysostom, Dante and Jesus himself have let us know that there will be justice for such bishops in the end.

  2. Jeremy Bonner says:


    While failure to complete the penance would preclude the efficacy of absolution, would it break the confessional seal? Isn’t the point that the confessor is not supposed to investigate the confessee’s subsequent behavior? So a priest could state that the penitent must turn him/herself in, but how could he check if they did so, especially if the confessee were anonymous?

  3. tjmcmahon says:

    Dr. Bonner,
    I honestly do not have an answer for you. How much of the “seal of the confessional” is biblical mandate, and how much church tradition? The legislation envisioned in the CoE appears to assume that the priest in question knows the confessee. I think it may be academic in any case- I very much doubt that many child abusers confess it. And in most of the cases I am aware of, it seems that a substantial number of people know what is going on, just that no one is willing to go to the authorities, often as not on the excuse that they want to protect the church, or that they just don’t want to believe what their own children are telling them about the local curate or the youth minister or choir director.
    I see the slippery slope here- as it isn’t hard to envision TEC in a few years time deciding that priests should out anyone who confesses to “homophobia” or secretly holding back on their tithe. And, of course, priests are not trained investigators, so at best any evidence they bring forward is hearsay. Plus, once the church breaks the seal, priests will be called to court as witnesses, and be required to testify to whatever the court deems necessary (it would not be logical to assume that the church could drop the seal for child abuse, but retain it for murder).
    On the other hand, if my experience is any indication, if you threw out all the priests who violated the seal of the confessional over cocktails (about the third sherry), you would have precious few left. It actually has been how I have chosen my own confessors. I eliminate all of those who have related some anecdote about the funniest, wickedest, bawdiest, saddest or most morbid confession they ever heard. Granted, they usually don’t mention names, but in a congregation of 30, there are only so many doctors or interior decorators or plumbers. Or given the last few I have been part of, a very few under 50. So it usually isn’t all that difficult to identify who they are talking about.

  4. jhp says:

    Thanks tjmcmahon for your comment. In seminary I was advised to confess regularly to someone outside my circle of clerical acquaintances, preferably someone distant. There was a fine monastery in a neighboring city, so I went away on a week’s retreat which ended with confession to a senior monk. Completely by coincidence, he happened to know a mutual acquaintance whom I indirectly and anonymously referenced in confession. It was awkward. That experience undermined my confidence in the impersonal anonymity of the confessional. Over the years I too have been shocked to hear indirect, indiscreet references to things said “under the seal.”

    It’s hard to believe that a few bad clerical apples can commit homicide, suicide, adultery, bigamy, pedophilia, embezzlement, malfeasance, what have you … yet those priests respect and never break the inviolable Seal. Hate to be cynical, just not buying it. Even when precautions are taken, anonymity and the expectation of confidentiality are not absolute. I’ve developed many reservations about “auricular confession,” skepticism about the Seal being only a small one. I wonder if in English law or in the Church of England’s practice, these kinds of communications have always been absolutely privileged … especially since this practice has not been seen to be a sacrament?