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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Anglican Church Investigation Report


B.5.3: The seal of the confessional in the Church of England

13. The Church’s internal guidance – Responding to, Assessing and Managing Safeguarding Concerns or Allegations against Church Officers 2017 – states:

All suspicions, concerns, knowledge or allegations, that reach the threshold for reporting to the statutory authorities, will be reported via the diocesan safeguarding adviser or designated safeguarding adviser/officer in another church body to the appropriate statutory authorities. This will be done irrespective of the status of the person.[1]

The only exception to this requirement concerns information received under the seal of the confessional; information disclosed during confession “is subject to a duty of absolute confidentiality arising from … Canon 113 of the Code of 1603”.[2]

Canon law

14. The seal of the confessional does not apply to each private or confidential conversation between a congregant and a priest.[3] In accordance with Canon B29, the practice of confession requires:

  • a priest wearing suitable robes – a stole – and being the priest of the relevant parish or district (unless there is the danger of death or other urgency, in which case any priest can hear a confession);
  • an advertised or pre-arranged time;
  • it to be conducted in a private space or in a space where only the priest and penitent are present; and
  • that the penitent is a baptised member of the Church of England who confesses their sins in order to demonstrate penitence and seek the forgiveness of God.[4]

The priest hearing the confession may give absolution (forgiveness). However, absolution may be withheld if the individual refuses to make appropriate reparations, such as refusing to report themselves to the police.[5]

Concerns about the seal of the confessional

15. MACSAS (Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors) and other survivor groups have identified occasions where it is alleged that multiple allegations of child sexual abuse have not been passed to the authorities.[6] In 2015, diocesan safeguarding advisers (DSAs) noted that it was rare for someone to admit to child sexual abuse during confession.[7] However, it is unclear whether breaking the seal of the confessional would have made any difference to the safety of a particular child.[8]

16. Canon Dr Rupert Bursell QC (a canon lawyer and a survivor of abuse) told the Inquiry that the seal of the confessional should not continue, but he did not consider that the Church would make this change itself. As a result, in his view, Parliament should impose a general duty to report any reasonable suspicion of abuse – “whether in the past or in the future.[9]

17. Under English law, there is no absolute right to the confidentiality of information. For example, a doctor may receive confidential information but is obliged, if ordered to do so, to give this information to the civil or criminal courts if there is a risk to the welfare of a child or if he or she knows a crime has taken place or is going to take place.[10] To date, no recent case in England and Wales has decided whether or not a priest may refuse to answer questions in a court of law about the content of a confession. As a result, the Legal Advisory Commission of the General Synod and canon lawyers are undecided whether or not priests might be required to disclose information today.[11]

The seal of the confessional working group

18. The seal of the confessional working group was established by the Church of England in November 2014. It was chaired by Bishop Paul Butler (then Bishop of Durham and Lead Bishop on Safeguarding) and included the Bishop of Horsham (Vice-Chair), a number of General Synod members, an ecclesiastical lawyer and a representative of the Roman Catholic Church.[12] Its purpose was to re-examine “the whole issue of the seal of the confessional in the light of the failures of the church generally in its safeguarding; in particular, in consequence of the report on the Waddington case”.[13]

19. It concluded that Waddington was “manipulative in his use of the seal to silence his victim. As one anonymous DSA also told the working group, there were other incidents in which the priest abuses a victim and then hears their confession … and tells the victim that this is now all under the seal and therefore must never be spoken of again”.[14] The seal did not prevent and would not have prevented Waddington’s victim reporting abuse to the authorities.[15]

20. The working group considered the experience of the Australian Anglican Church. In 2014, the Australian General Synod passed a canon stating that the seal of the confessional would not apply in cases where a person had committed a “serious offence” (ie a criminal offence involving child abuse, child exploitation material, or a punishment of imprisonment for life or for a term of five years or more). The term “child abuse” required evidence that the child had suffered or was likely to suffer “significant harm” to their well-being or development.[16] Following the introduction of this new canonical provision, concerns were raised about its “workability and validity”.[17] For example, some considered that a non-legally trained priest could not be expected to make the required assessments. As a result, the exception was extended to criminal offences involving abuse of a “vulnerable person” and to “other conduct”.[18]

21. The working group concluded that the Australian model was “unworkable” as the concepts of “other conduct” and “significant harm” were wide and relied on subjective judgement.[19] Canon Dr Bursell QC considered that the approach taken in Australia was “far too complicated and should not be endorsed by the Church of England.[20]

22. The working group’s report (published in May 2019) stated:[21]

  • there have been priests … who have misused and abused their position to exercise dominant power over those making confession, and in some cases seriously abusing those who had placed their trust in them”;[22]
  • there was a need for clarity as to when the seal applies; while the 2015 Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy state that the duty of confidentiality does not apply outside the context of a formal confession, it may not be clear what constitutes a formal confession, “especially amongst those whose church tradition is less familiar with the practice of confession”;[23] and
  • as there is currently “no formal definition of the ministry of absolution”, there should be a compulsory training programme for clergy about confession and each diocese should appoint an adviser as a point of reference for training, supervision and advice “underpinned by clearer guidance”.[24]

While the working group agreed that the seal of the confessional should either be retained or abolished entirely, it was unable to reach a unanimous view as to which option should apply.[25] It made no recommendations other than improved training for priests during both initial ministerial education and afterwards.[26]

23. Bishop Mark Sowerby (suffragan Bishop of Horsham and vice chair of the working group) told the Inquiry that a “half-broken seal was not a workable compromise”.[27] In May 2019, the House of Bishops concluded that it “did not favour” the introduction of a qualified exemption to the absolute seal of confidentiality. As it “preferred to retain the seal on its present footing, though recognised that such ministry should be rooted in good practice”, it agreed to implement the recommendations for training, guidance and the appointment of a diocesan adviser about the seal.[28] The duty of absolute confidentiality therefore remains in canon law.

24. Some in the Church consider that the absolute nature of the seal is “a fundamental principle of shared Christian doctrine”.[29] In their view, parliamentary legislation that overrides the seal would impose “an unacceptable restriction on freedom of religion”.[30] Bishop Sowerby said that the seal “is there to assist those people, rather than to protect somebody from the consequences of their own crime”.[31] Similarly, the working group report on the seal of the confessional suggested that the abolition of the seal may in fact lead to victims and survivors being reluctant to disclose details of their own abuse in the confessional, for fear that the person would then be reported to the authorities.[32] The National Safeguarding Team made a submission that the seal should be abolished.[33]

25. The Archbishops’ Council endorsed qualifying the seal with specialist and enhanced training, considering this to be a “better route to ensuring that disclosures of abuse are reported wherever possible”.[34] However, as Canon Dr Bursell QC noted:

anything which leads to noise or reasonable suspicion of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, should be outside the seal of the confessional”.[35]

Archbishop Sentamu agreed that the seal “really cannot be left watertight … if there’s anything that stands in the way of disclosure, it should be removed”.[36] This could be possible without impacting on the confidentiality of disclosures of abuse, with the seal being absolute for those who disclose that they have been abused but not for those who abuse.

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