Dear Brothers and Sisters,
During the past few years we have been shocked to read about the many cases of abuse carried out, or allegedly carried out, by trusted people belonging to the churches, both in this country and internationally. A report published in May 2019 by the Independent Enquiry on Child Abuse into abuse in the Diocese of Chichester and the allegations against Bishop Peter Ball found that the Church of England failed in its duty to protect and support children and victims of abuse. Similarly, commenting on a report into child abuse in the Roman Catholic diocese of Birmingham published last month by the Independent Enquiry the chair of the enquiry said “Victims and survivors’ allegations were mostly ignored for years, while perpetrators avoided prosecution. It is clear that the church could have stopped children being abused if it had not been so determined to protect its own reputation.” Both reports make disturbing reading.
Where allegations of abuse have been made it is not open to diocesan officials to ignore them or respond simply by moving priests from one parish to another. Nor, on the other hand, should they simply presume the guilt of the alleged offender as many church officials did in the case of Bishop George Bell. Proper investigation of the allegations must be made by the appropriate authorities but alleged offenders must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. That means also that the church must provide suitable support for those accused of offences; accusations can be, and are, made maliciously and the effect on the accused person who knows s/he is innocent can be devastating. As Cliff Richard and Paul Gambaccini have recently argued, there is a case to be made for preserving the anonymity of alleged offenders of sexual abuse until charged. Even though there is no anonymity for other alleged crimes, anonymity for alleged abusers until charged would fairly balance the lifelong anonymity of alleged victims.
A by-product of the number of abuse scandals is that they have led to calls being made in many countries for the mandatory reporting of allegations of abuse. In many cases this might prove unobjectionable, for example where in the course of a normal pastoral conversation an alleged victim asks for advice or help and consents to the matter being taken further. However, in Roman Catholic churches, here at All Saints, and in many other Anglican churches, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is offered to penitents wishing to declare their sins before God and receive forgiveness. In the case of a penitent confessing a crime the priest would withhold absolution until the penitent had reported himself to the police. But mandatory reporting could require priests themselves to disclose any confessions of abuse made by perpetrators of the abuse in the confessional and also any accusations of abuse made by alleged victims against third parties in the confessional. This would contravene Canon Law on the seal of the confessional.
The seal of the confessional means that everything the penitent makes known in the confession is forever sealed by the sacrament. The priest may not disclose anything learned in the confessional to any other person; indeed, he may not make any use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives so that he cannot even refer to it to the penitent him/herself.
The Church of England established a working party on the seal of the confessional and released its report in May 2019. It failed to reach a consensus on whether or not the seal should be retained or abolished, recommending only that all priests exercising the ministry of reconciliation should receive training. In Southwark diocese that training is already a part of initial ministerial education.
The report is being further considered by the House of Bishops. Meanwhile, on 1 July the Vatican issued a statement approved by Pope Francis restating the absolute inviolability of the seal of confession. It noted in part that “The inviolable secrecy of Confession derives directly from revealed divine law and is rooted in the very nature of the sacrament, to the point of admitting no exception in the ecclesial or, even less so, in the civil sphere. In the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in fact, the very essence of Christianity itself and of the Church is encapsulated: the Son of God became man to save us, and He decided to involve the Church, as a ‘necessary instrument’ in this work of salvation”. It is to be hoped that the House of Bishops will make a similar stand.
At the 2018 Forward in Faith National Assembly last November, it was resolved to call on Society priests to reassure the faithful that they will maintain absolute confidentiality with regard to what is confessed in sacramental confession. That will certainly be the case at All Saints.