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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Anglican Church Case Studies: Chichester/Peter Ball Investigation Report

B.12: Mandatory reporting

492. Many safeguarding concerns in Chichester should have been reported to the statutory authorities at an earlier date. For example, Bishop Wallace Benn failed to share his knowledge of abuse perpetrated by Roy Cotton. Both he and Archdeacon Nicholas Reade were aware that Robert Coles had admitted sexually assaulting a child, yet neither told the police.

493. The consequences of these failures were grave. Victims were denied justice. Prosecutions were delayed or, in the case of Cotton, did not take place at all. The Church must take action to ensure that this catalogue of errors does not occur again, and that all allegations of child sexual abuse are reported swiftly to statutory bodies.

494. One suggestion made by several victims and survivors within these cases studies, along with the groups representing them, is the introduction of a criminal offence for those who fail to report allegations of abuse to public authorities. This is known as a ‘mandatory reporting’ duty. Other jurisdictions, including some states and territories in Canada and all states in Australia, have already introduced such offences.[1]

The current position

495. The House of Bishops’ guidance Responding to, Assessing and Managing Safeguarding Concerns or Allegations against Church Officers was published in October 2017. It states that a safeguarding concern or allegation should be passed to the Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser, who will refer the matter to the statutory agencies where appropriate.[2]

496. There is currently no absolute duty in canon law for clergy to follow the safeguarding guidance issued by the House of Bishops. In 2016, the Clergy Discipline Measure was amended to identify that “due regard” must be had to this guidance by all clergy on the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults.[3] Failure to have due regard represents a breach of canon law and is therefore a disciplinary offence.[4] The evidence given to us showed that this term was not understood and there is a need for greater clarity regarding the sense of the obligation.

Support for mandatory reporting

497. We heard widespread support for compulsory reporting to statutory authorities in some form, although there was no agreement as to what should be reported, to whom and when. Bishop Peter Hancock, the current lead bishop on safeguarding, considered that criminal sanctions should apply where “knowledge or significant suspicion of abuse” is not reported.[5]Mr Johnson also strongly supported mandatory reporting. He compared the introduction of mandatory safeguarding measures to the use of seat belts in cars, the enforcement of which encouraged positive cultural change.[6] Without a legal onus to report, “there is nothing to stop institutions from protecting their image and their reputation ahead of children”.[7]

498. Ms Lawrence of MACSAS observed that, even with the benefit of education and training, there is often a reluctance to report child sexual abuse.[8] This can stem from a refusal to believe that a respected authority figure could abuse a child. Ms Lawrence suggested that a mandatory obligation to report is the only way to address the issue. It would ensure that all relevant information is considered by independently minded people from outside the institution, who are properly equipped to assess its significance.

499. Support from other senior clerics was more ambivalent. Bishop Martin Warner questioned whether mandatory reporting is “the way that we are going to achieve best protection for children”. In his view, the current requirements of clergy are “right and proper”.[9] Bishop Mark Sowerby remarked that “the clergy are already under an obligation to inform where child sexual abuse is there”.[10] Both considered that the Church’s safeguarding policies and guidance effectively impose a mandatory reporting duty upon clergy and those undertaking offices within the Church (such as churchwardens). It does not, however, place a mandatory duty upon volunteers within the Church unless they are also office holders. Volunteers make up the vast majority of people who may have suspicions or to whom disclosures may be made.

Practical considerations

500. Before determining if a mandatory reporting duty should be put in place, we note that there are different views as to what the threshold for making such a report ought to be. Mr Colin Perkins, the Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser for Chichester, distinguished between three levels of awareness: allegation, suspicion and admission. His view was that “if people know of abuse occurring or if people receive an allegation, they should be mandated to report that”.[11] Suspicion, by contrast, is a much more uncertain concept. Sir Roger Singleton recognised similarly that “setting a threshold … might be more challenging than saying a threshold needs to be set”, although he agreed that reporting requirements need greater clarity.[12]

501. Witnesses also suggested that a mandatory reporting duty might lead to over‑reporting,[13] which could overwhelm safeguarding resources and distract from serious cases of abuse. As Mr Graham Tilby stated, there could be “a very real risk of actually missing the proper risk because you couldn’t see the wood for the trees”.[14] However, Ms Lawrence pointed out that, according to recent studies, mandatory reporting does not in fact increase the proportion of unsubstantiated allegations.[15]

502. There were also differing views as to who should be obliged to report. Ms Lawrence suggested that the duty could apply to the general public, although she conceded that this would be practically impossible to enforce. She then suggested the duty be restricted to office holders and volunteers within the Church, including clergy and Diocesan Safeguarding Advisers.[16]

503. In terms of the body to whom the report should be made, Mr Tilby distinguished between reporting to the statutory authorities and informing the National Safeguarding Team. In his view, “the important thing is they have reported it to the statutory authorities. That’s where the ‘must’ must really lie”.[17] He told us that the National Safeguarding Team will deal with only the most complex cases.

504. Lastly, no witness had a clear plan for how the Church of England would effect mandatory reporting without larger statutory change (which, in the document published by the Department for Education in March 2018, has not been envisaged). Bishop Hancock said it may be possible to “tighten” the existing policy by changing “should” to “must”. He cautioned that the current guidance may be “as near to mandatory reporting as the Church can get”.[18]

Seal of the confessional

505. The seal of the confessional protects the confidentiality of words spoken during confession. It refers specifically to the private confession of sins by an individual in the presence of a priest. Confession is not practised by all communicant members of the Church of England and is not a compulsory element of religious ritual or practice imposed by the canons of the Church.

506. As Bishop Warner noted, it can be a source of “immense spiritual release and encouragement and comfort” for survivors of abuse. They are able to speak openly about their experiences, free from any fear that a member of the clergy will report such to the police or social services.[19]

507. Some within the Church of England have called for the seal of the confessional to be broken in the case of reports of child sexual abuse. This would compel clergy to inform the statutory authorities if an individual admits to child sexual abuse whilst under the seal of the confessional.

Application of the seal

508. Sacramental confession is a specific act most often practised by those who are on the Anglo‑Catholic wing of the Church. Bishop John Hind described it as a “minority practice”.[20] He explained that it traditionally takes place “at an advertised time, in church, with a priest robed and wearing a purple stole”.[21]

509. Pursuant to canon law, a confessor can and should refuse to grant absolution unless satisfied that a penitent is sincerely repentant. Thus, if a disclosure of criminal activity is made, a confessor should withhold absolution until the penitent has admitted their crime to the statutory authorities.[22]

510. Under the 2015 Professional Conduct of the Clergy guidelines, the duty of confidentiality under canon law does not apply outside the context of a formal confession. Therefore, a priest would be able to report anything uttered during a confidential discussion.[23]

511. However, the understanding of what constitutes a ‘formal confession’ can give rise to some confusion. Lord Rowan Williams was clear that the seal applied only to sacramental confessions heard “under the purple stole”, in church at an advertised time, in a confession box with the inclusion of linguistic and liturgical formalities.[24]

512. According to Bishop Hind, some confessors mistakenly believe the seal also attaches to an “unregulated confession … people get that confused with sacramental confession and sometimes imagine that the same degrees of confidentiality apply”. The solemn act of sacramental confession must be distinguished from an informal pastoral conversation.[25]

513. In contrast, Ms Lawrence told us that the seal can also attach to confession outside of a box “if someone truly believes they are telling someone, who can absolve them of sin in God’s name, that they have committed an offence”.[26] The principle would apply whether the penitent was in a confession box or “talking over the kitchen table ... it depends on the interpretation of the people in that room”.[27]

514. Bishop Hancock informed us that the Church of England has put in place a working party to discuss the issue.[28] It has reported that there is confusion about this topic and that the training given to clergy is inadequate.

The seal of the confessional in child sexual abuse

515. We heard a range of opinions as to whether the seal of the confessional should apply to prevent disclosures of child sexual abuse. Canon Dr Rupert Bursell QC argued strongly that it should not apply; no such seal exists in relation to terrorism. Change could be effected by way of primary legislation or by amending canon law.[29]

516. Bishop Hancock concurred, on the basis that “the safeguarding and the welfare of children and young people is paramount”.[30] Ms Lawrence thought that the Church should move away from the inviolability of the confessional through the introduction of a mandatory reporting regime, which would apply even to disclosures made in the confessional.[31]

517. Others considered that the seal should remain in place. Bishop Warner characterised the confessional as “a vital and important forum” that cannot be compromised “just a little bit … it is all or nothing”.[32] Lord Williams expressed “real qualms” about removing the seal, as it allows vulnerable people to “make use of an absolutely guaranteed confidential space”.[33]


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