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Australian Anglicans Abandon Confessional Secrecy


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.

Read about it here, here, and here.

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14 thoughts on “Australian Anglicans Abandon Confessional Secrecy”

  1. Peter Gardner

    I would think that a confession to a priest would be hearsay anyway, and not admissable in court. Also, if a priest knows the penitent, he could probably retrospectively come up with reasons for suspicion, if necessary, that could be reported, that aren’t from confession, and if he doesn’t know the penitent, they’d be trickier to report anyway.

    But I’m neither priest nor lawyer nor Australian nor Anglican.

  2. Peter Carrell

    Surely the issue, noting Peter Gardner’s comment above, is not primarily securing a conviction in court, but the prevention of further damage in the community. A paedophile needs in the first instance to be prevented from causing more harm before being convicted in court. The question Bosco is engaging with is at least in part what it means to be a priest to a whole community and to be responsible for the safety of all as well as for the safety of the confessional.

  3. In the Canons Ecclesiastical of 1603, the seal of the confessional is enjoined in the 113th canon. All of the original canons were replaced in the 1960s EXCEPT Canon 113. It remains in legal force in the Church of England. But it allows one exception to the inviolability of the seal: if the law of the realm would punish a priest with death for failing to report a particular crime, then the priest is free to report it.

    But the thing is, it seems that no such law has ever been passed in England. If anything, Church of England ecclesiastical law (which is part of the law of the realm) strenuously prohibits Anglican priests from doing what the Australian Church proposes now to allow.

    I’m with you, Bosco. This is a distraction.

    Those with access to an academic library (or with subscription access to online journals) might like to read a fascinating article on the seal of the confessional in the Church of England Judge Rupert D. H. Bursell: “The Seal of the Confessional,” Ecclesiastical Law Society Journal 2 (1990), 84-109. Here is the concluding paragraph:

    “The seal of the confessional was part of the canon law applied in England before the Reformation. It was also part of that law which was continued in force at the Reformation, as is confirmed by the proviso to canon 113 of the 1603 Canons. This proviso is still in force and *proprio vigore* binds the clergy of the Church of England. By the Act of Uniformity, 1662, the hearing of confessions was enjoined up on those clergy in certain circumstances; the law places no limit upon the frequency of their being heard. It is unsurprising that there are infrequent references to the seal of the confessional since the Reformation; such cases as there are are inconclusive. Nevertheless, although the seal of the confessional may be waived by the penitent, the refusal by an Anglican clergyman to disclose what has been said within sacramental confession is based upon a duty imposed on him by the ecclesiastical law rather than upon an evidential privilege. An Anglican clergyman in breach of that duty would be in grave danger of censure by the ecclesiastical courts and such censure might well lead to his deprivation and possible deposition from Holy Orders. The ecclesiastical law is part of the general law of the land and must be applied in both the ecclesiastical and secular courts. Both courts must therefore enforce that clerical duty and uphold any refusal by an Anglican clergyman to answer questions in breach of the seal of the confessional.”

  4. Bursell may actually be wrong about Canon 113, because there are certainly two deaneries within the Church of England – Jersey and Guernsey – where English ecclesiastical law simply does not apply.

    I’d also be interested to see how it would play out for clergy in the Church of England Diocese of Europe.

    1. Very interesting! I think this rather underlines the judge’s point, however, that for the Church of England it is a question of the ecclesiastical laws of the realm (whatever those happen to be), not of “religious privilege” (as would be the case in other countries).

    1. Robert, do you think allowing confessors to break confidentiality, with the penitent knowing that is the case for a serious offense, will prevent, for example, abuse? Blessings.

      1. Robert W M Greaves

        I doubt it. It will probably just deter people from confessing it to their vicar or whoever.

        But what is the position with a psychiatrist or other therapist? How does the confidentiality of a priest hearing confession differ from that expected of a medical practitioner or other therapist? Should different rules apply in a largely secular society?

        1. I described the seal of confession in my post, Robert. There are no exceptions for a confessor. Examples of exceptions to confidentiality in another profession you mention can be found here. Blessings.

  5. ” if the law of the realm would punish a priest with death for failing to report a particular crime, then the priest is free to report it.”
    – Jesse –

    I’d be very interested to know what ‘realm’ in which an Anglican priest would be operating would threaten a priest with death if he/she did not report a ‘particular crime’?

    1. Indeed! The canons are directed only at the realm of England, and England has never had such a law (nor can it now, unless capital punishment be re-introduced). It seems probable that the exception is a purely hypothetical assertion of the Royal Supremacy.

      I recently read Anthony Trollope’s “Barchester Towers” (1857) for the first time. (Not sure why it took me so long to get round to it.) There’s a moving passage in it that I have found comforting when contemplating reckless synodical decisions. One of Trollope’s “good guys”, Francis Arabin, a priest and Oxford don, came very close as a younger man (and disciple of J. H. Newman) to converting to Rome. But while on a retreat in Cornwall he found the message he needed to stay his course (apologies for the characteristic anti-Romanism of the time):

      “When Mr. Arabin left Oxford, he was inclined to look upon the rural clergymen of most English parishes almost with contempt. It was his ambition, should he remain within the fold of their church, to do something towards redeeming and rectifying their inferiority, and to assist in infusing energy and faith into the hearts of Christian ministers, who were, as he thought, too often satisfied to go through life without much show of either. And yet it was from such a one that Mr. Arabin in his extremest need received that aid which he so much required. It was from the poor curate of a small Cornish parish that he first learnt to know that the highest laws for the governance of a Christian’s duty must act from within and not from without; that no man can become a serviceable servant solely by obedience to written edicts; and that the safety which he was about to seek within the gates of Rome was no other than the selfish freedom from personal danger which the bad soldier attempts to gain who counterfeits illness on the eve of battle. Mr. Arabin returned to Oxford a humbler but a better and a happier man; and from that time forth he put his shoulder to the wheel as a clergyman of the Church for which he had been educated.”

      Though a Church may lack sound rules, it does not automatically follow that its clergy and people need also lack virtue and moral courage. To despair of your Church because its rules are not to your taste is quite possibly a dereliction of one’s duty to follow the truth even unsupported by rules. (Ephraim Radner had an interesting paper in Anglican Theological Review some years ago on obedience to “bad bishops” as a sign of catholicity!)

  6. Brian Poidevin

    Rather late I have come to this. As an Australian I have no problem with this given some of the grievious wrongs done within the Anglican Communion here. I agree practically though it will have little effect,
    Having just read John Cornwell’s “the Black Box” the whole concept of confession as a religious practice and a sacrament seems little more than the church’s obsession with rule making.
    Many of the posts here here show this obsession with rules and little with morality. Some of the polsters’ names echo with me in this regard.
    Having read what we can glimpse of Jesus on scribes, pharisees etc. little seems to have changed. If I am wrong convince me.

  7. I suppose I must be one of the posters whom he thinks to be more concerned with rules than with morality. I confess, I don’t understand the supposed contradiction: the Australian rule change seems to allow priests to commit an immoral act. My perhaps opaque quotation from Trollope above was, I hoped, a testament to an ethic much higher than rule-making: you can have all the rules you like; but be they ever so perfect, they cannot make you inwardly virtuous. The old Protestant saw about Catholics feeling free to sin wantonly — because they could just be absolved — has perhaps in some cases not been too far off the mark. But there is a difference between healthy and unhealthy uses of sacramental confession.

    On that subject, one more bit of my hero Walter Farquar Hook, and then I promise I’ll stop. Hook wrote angrily to his bishop on the subject of confession in 1851. Hook had been criticizing a former curate of his, now a priest in another church, for teaching that sacramental confession was a necessary means of grace. The priest retorted that Hook himself had taught the same doctrine during the time that the priest was his curate. Hook’s response has always struck me as an admirably sane approach to confession (one seemingly shared by my very wise Dean of Divinity). Hook treats confession as an emergency intervention for a sick soul, at the penitent’s instigation, and not as a necessary sacrament or a pious “habit”. It is hard to imagine Hook’s Anglican system as a “system of control” or as an occasion for covering up wrongdoing.

    From W. R. W. Stephens, The Life and Letters of Walter Farquhar Hook, 6th edn (London: Bentley, 1881), pp. 491-3:

    In this large and extensive parish many persons have, from time to time, “opened their griefs to me” and sought from me “ghostly counsel and advice.” Persons have come to consult me from distant places. The duty is a most unpleasant one, from which, while always ready to discharge it when called upon, I shrink, from an unaffected feeling of my own incompetency to discharge it properly. I frequently have directed people to seek other advice, and sometimes that of laymen, as in the case of children whom I have referred to their parents, husbands to wives and wives to husbands.

    From my own experience in this portion of the ministerial office I should arrange those who come to a clergyman for advice under the following head:

    1. Persons who have their consciences burdened with great sins.

    2. Persons of unsound mind, morbid feelings, or heated imagination.

    3. Persons of scrupulous conscience, and not of strong intellect.

    4. Persons who, from the circumstances of the times, have a vague idea that they ought to confess.

    Now, with respect of the first class of persons, theirs is a case, sometimes, of difficulty, because great distress of mind does not always prove the existence of true repentance; and where there is faith to be justified, true repentance must exist. And here, too, when habits of sin have been formed, it is necessary to see the penitents often.

    My way of dealing with the second class of persons is to keep them under rather strict discipline for some time, during which time I endeavour to employ their minds by making them study books which will require attention and task their intellectual powers. . . .

    The system I adopt is simply that of the Church of England, which would discountenance the habit of confession. Many persons have opened their griefs to me: I have sometimes had six or eight cases of conscience before me, and the, on the other hand, for many months not one. I doubtless had some other cases in 1845, when Mr. — came to me, and not one of them remains with me at the present time; and for this plain reason, that when I have given them advice or comfort, and have put them in the way of regulating their own minds, I dismiss them. I tell them to come to me no more, or to come to me only when new doubts, difficulties, or perplexities occur to them. But the Romish system adopted by Mr. — and his friends being the reverse in principle is also the reverse in its effects. We assist people in their difficulties and sorrows, but when we have assisted them, tell them to confess to God alone, and no longer to come to us. But they, regarding confession as a means of grace, must urge men to have recourse to it, and must be hypocrites themselves, unless they themselves confess. . . .

    How comes it to have passed that while Mr. — was my curate he never thought of coming to me for confession? that he never thought of it till six years after he had left my church, when he had become the incumbent of another, and after he had been conscience-stricken under the sermon of a clergyman not connected with me and strongly opposed to Mr. —’s school of divinity?

    How is it that no curate of my church — and I have had many — no officer, lay or clerical, of my church, has ever made a confession? How is it that not a single member of my own family, not one of my own dear children, for whose spiritual welfare I am bound before all things to watch, ever come to me or go to anyone else for confession?

    It is because I hold that while confession may be occasionally necessary as medicine to a mind diseased, it is an exception, not the rule; and I teach them to regulate their own minds, and to go for confession to God alone.

    How is it that I never go to confession myself? Often, very often in my life, God knows, I have required and sought ghostly counsel and advice, but in my early years I sought and opened my griefs to a friend who was, and is, a layman; and for the last two and twenty years I have obtained it from one who is bound to me by the closest ties that can bind together two human beings, and without whose tender care and affectionate support I should not have been able to endure the hard warfare I have had to sustain during the last fourteen years, when I have had to defend the Church of England first from one extreme and then from another.

  8. I just want to make some brief observations. Firstly, there are many paedophiles in the church, probably an even higher number than there are in society at large. There are many possible reasons for this, but one may be that marginalised groups and vulnerable people seek the shelter of religious communities. Historically we have seen large numbers of homosexuals in the church for much the same reason, though this seems to be receding as greater social tolerance makes gay people less religious! Secondly, it seems clear that the vast majority of paedophiles (that is, adults sexually attracted primarily or exclusively to children) both in the church and in society as a whole are non-offending. There’s a sad lack of academic research into paedophilia in a non-forensic context, but both anecdotal evidence and the small amount of research into minor-attracted adults strongly suggests this is the case. It is regrettable then that the media uses the word “paedophile” to denote someone who acts on their sexual attraction. The more neutral term “minor-attracted adult” (MAA) is increasingly favoured in clinical circles. Thirdly, the majority of paedophiles who do commit crimes do so in ways that do not directly involve children (that is, by viewing child pornography or other related offences). This one has good statistics to back it up. There is no evidence that doing these things makes a paedophile more likely to attack a child. Finally, there is good clinical evidence that minor-attracted adults who do not wish to commit offences against children are much less likely to do so if they have the support and confidence of a person they can trust and talk with in a non-judgmental environment. In a very large number of cases this is a priest, in part because the mental health profession has been lamentably backward in providing appropriate support to MAAs. And perhaps in part too because not a few priests experience similar feelings themselves.

    Bearing in mind all these facts I worry greatly about the effects of placing priests in a position where they may not be able to provide support to their minor-attracted laity because they are under a conflicting obligation to the law. This seems to me a dangerous and badly thought-out measure. Better training for priests on how to deal with such situations is surely desirable, but simply forcing them to report crimes confessed to them in confidence doesn’t promise to make anyone safer.

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