Try a little thought experiment. Suppose some future press regulator proposed a new rule: if a confidential source told a journalist anything suggesting there might be a risk of harm or abuse to the source himself or a third party, the journalist should be not only permitted but required on pain of disciplinary proceedings to tell the authorities immediately and reveal the source’s identity. Confidentiality, the instruction might run, was beside the point. It was the duty of the media to protect victims and the vulnerable, and no journalist could be allowed to opt out. The press would rightly be up in arms. Protection of sources is a fundamental principle, respected alike by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), which reporters have an honourable tradition of following even if it lands them in prison (as it famously did just over 50 years ago, with two journalists jailed for protecting sources in connection with the Vassall affair).
You might expect the Church of England, many of whose bishops take pride in seeing themselves as the conscience of the nation, to act much in the same way when it comes to the secrets of the confessional. But you’d be disappointed. It was reported a few days ago that instructions from Trevor Willmott, the Bishop of Dover, to his clergy now state that those who take confession must give a health warning as follows: ‘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.’
The obvious objection is that this is in straight breach of canon law (‘Provided always, That if any Man confess his secret and hidden Sins to the Minister for the unburdening of his Conscience, and to receive spiritual Consolation and Ease of Mind from him: We do not any way bind the said Minister by this our Constitution, but do straitly charge and admonish him, that he do not at any time reveal and make known to any Person whatsoever, any Crime or Offence so committed to his Trust and Secrecy’ – Canon 113). We need spend no time on the weaselly justification advanced by the relevant episcopal bureaucrat. His suggestion that the order did not break the seal of the confessional but ‘advise[d] 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’ must be a prime candidate for outright winner of the 2018 Prize for Casuistry and Obfuscation. But much more importantly, it tells us a great deal about the leadership of the Anglican Church.
First, one strongly suspects that there is a large element of public relations about this episode. As a result of a number of clerical abuse scandals, the Church is paranoid about anything that could remotely be described as a ‘cover-up’. Unfortunately it never seems to have occurred to the diocese issuing this instruction that not all silence amounts to a cover-up. Incompetent failure to root out perverted priests, or for that matter to report suspicions casually gained about members of the church who seem clearly up to no good, is one thing; there is a world of difference between that and a considered refusal, on clear sacramental grounds, to pass on to the secular authorities a secret between the penitent, his priest, and God.
Secondly, the form of words provided bears all the hallmarks of something drafted not in a bishop’s palace by someone spiritually concerned for the good of humanity, but in a law office by someone instructed to minimise the risk of getting sued. Indeed one wonders whether one reason for engaging in this whole exercise might have been a remark by some hyper-cautious ecclesiastical legal adviser that it was better to be safe than sorry in this respect. If so, it seems a sledgehammer to crack a nut. You have to remember that the ‘seal of the confessional’ is very constricted. As the Catholic Church, which has a great deal more experience in such matters, points out, it applies strictly only within the Sacrament of Reconciliation: in any other context, however supposedly confidential, the priest is under the usual moral duty to prevent harm or abuse. And within the seal of the confessional proper, the prospect of a priest or church being sued or prosecuted for failing to pass on its secrets is close to non-existent.
Thirdly, in reading the instructions in question here, and indeed most of the material emanating from the Anglican Church on safeguarding, it is hard to avoid the impression that many people at the top behave as if the Church were simply the state-recognised God-believing arm of the caring professions. The statement that ‘Safeguarding children and vulnerable adults must be our highest priority and is at the heart of all our responsibilities’, coming from a ‘Safeguarding Management Group’, could just as well have come from a school, local authority or health authority as from the mystical body of Christ on earth (whose highest priority, one might be forgiven for hoping, was actually something rather different).
Fifty years ago we laughed at Peter Simple’s caricature of Dr Spacely-Trellis, the go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon who always referred in his sermons to Jesus and his team of trained social workers. But even then we probably realised even then that – perhaps unfortunately – there’s many a true word spoken in jest.