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Diocese of Canterbury issues confessional advice to priests

By Joe Wright

Church leaders have come under fire for advising priests to divulge the secrets of confession in special circumstances.

The Diocese of Canterbury, which covers Maidstone, Thanet and Ashford, has been accused of breaching canon law for telling clergy to inform the authorities should they fear for a person's safety.

The guidelines were drawn up after a local priest felt compromised when someone revealed details about ongoing abuse.

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Someone taking confession. Stock image
Someone taking confession. Stock image

Now those taking confession must be told beforehand: “If you touch on any matter in your confession that raises a concern about the wellbeing or safeguarding of another person or yourself, I am duty-bound to pass that information on to the relevant agencies, which means that I am unable to keep such information confidential.”

Critics say the advice goes beyond what is required under canon law.

Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy, published in 2015, state that if someone makes a confession with the intention of receiving absolution the priest “is forbidden to reveal or make known to any person what has been confessed”.

They add: “If, in the context of such a confession, the penitent discloses that he or she has committed a serious crime, such as the abuse of children or vulnerable adults, the priest must require the penitent to report his or her conduct to the police or other statutory authority.

"If the penitent refuses to do so the priest should withhold absolution.”

Forward in Faith, a group of Anglo-Catholics within the Church of England, has called for “urgent action” to bring the Diocese “back into conformity with canon law”.

“If Canterbury Diocese is allowed to continue publicly to incite the clergy to breach canon law, that will set a very worrying precedent,” it said.

Canterbury Diocese secretary Julian Hills defended guidelines, saying: “Safeguarding children and vulnerable adults must be our highest priority and is at the heart of all our responsibilities.

“The decision to issue this guidance arose out of a genuine situation where, during confession, a penitent shared with a priest information about ongoing abuse.

"In this case, the legal and moral position of the priest was called into question.

“It was therefore felt by the diocesan safeguarding management group that clergy must have clear guidance on how to manage situations where the seal of confession may be brought into conflict with their safeguarding responsibilities.”

Four years ago, the Archbishops’ Council commissioned a review into the seal of the confessional.

Rev Simon Tillotson agrees with the Diocese’s guidelines
Rev Simon Tillotson agrees with the Diocese’s guidelines

A report on the matter is set to be released and debated on in December by the House of Bishops.

Mr Hills added: “While there have been only a tiny number of criminal cases in which the seal of the confession has been in issue, it is unclear whether a criminal court would favour the responsibility to protect someone from abuse or the requirement of a priest to maintain confidentiality.

“This guidance has not – as some have claimed – abolished the seal of the confessional.

“Rather, it is intended to advise the penitent not to divulge in confession something which would legally compromise the position of the priest – and therefore require that priest to choose between their responsibility to protect someone from harm and the usual requirement of confidentiality.”

Rev Simon Tillotson, vicar of All Saints Church in Whitstable, agrees with the Diocese’s guidelines.

“The welfare of any individual must come before confidentiality,” he said.

“You’ve got to think, what is of greater benefit?

"I think anyone in physical or emotional danger must take paramount importance.

“The priest will say beforehand that they may have to break the seal of confession so the penitent will be aware if that confidentiality is broken.”

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