The Anglican Church of Australia has abandoned the seal of confession and will now allow confessors to break the confidentiality of the confessional in the case of serious crimes such as child abuse.
Let me say at the outset that abuse of children is evil. Any church coverups, and knowingly moving around of offenders, and blocking perpetrators being brought to justice is evil.
But, unless there is a suggestion that the seal may be broken retrospectively, I do not think that this move will bring people to justice who wouldn’t have been so previously. Nor will this legislative change prevent abuse. As far as I can see, this is yet another distraction.
Let’s also be clear what is being talked about here. We are not talking loosely about any sort of “confession”. We are not talking about someone sitting in a priest’s kitchen and suddenly blurting out that he’s the guy who smashed that car window in. The “seal of confession” has never applied to that. We are talking about the sacramental action that in our prayer books is now commonly titled “Reconciliation of a Penitent”. Someone using that rite (say from A Prayer Book for Australia pages 773-778) is, on page 778, assured “Canon law makes confidentiality absolute”. Or, as in A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa page 750:
The priest exercises this ministry in complete confidentiality. The penitent is therefore able to confess in the assurance that the priest will not refer to the matter again, except at the penitent’s request, and under no circumstances will ever repeat to any other person what has been divulged.
Whatever faults clergy have and have had, keeping this seal of confession has, over the centuries, been maintained. If someone “confesses” to abusing a child, or another serious offense, outside of this described rite of Reconciliation, the priest has always had the freedom to report this. Now, in Australia’s Anglican Church, the confessor may break this confidentiality for a serious offence, and if uncertain whether it is serious, “an ordained minister may reveal the conduct so confessed to a professional advisor for the purpose of obtaining advice as to whether that conduct constitutes a serious offence.”
For those (clearly all except Australian Anglicans) who hold to the seal of confession, if someone confesses a serious offence that has not been dealt with by the law, normal practice would be to “withhold absolution”. Absolution needs sincere repentance and not handing oneself in to police is a sign that repentance is not sincere.
We have not even begun to explore the point that in many places there is the option of confessing anonymously.
What will happen with Australian Anglican practice of breaching confidentiality is just that fewer people will avail themselves of this sacramental act – especially those who are sure what they will confess is a serious offence, and those who are not clear where that boundary lies.
Let me know of a case where justice prevails or things are better because of Australia’s change in practice.