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Exemption to confessional seal provokes lively Synod debate

Canon provides a single, narrow exception for child abuse to the principle of absolute confidentiality of the confessional

Bishop Lindsay Urwin, Vicar of Christ Church Brunswick, expressed "deep unease" about the legislation on Confession before Synod. "So does the confessor... move from being a confessor, a physician of souls, to being a detective? Is it my task, then, to pry and get the name of the person, so I become a detective rather than a pastor and priest?"

By Mark Brolly

October 24 2017Melbourne Synod has adopted legislation passed by General Synod exempting grave offences involving child abuse from the absolute confidentiality of the confessional after one of the liveliest debates of its five-day meeting at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Bishop Brad Billings (Monomeeth Episcopate), the Director of Theological Education for the Melbourne Diocese, said in his mover’s speech that the Canon Concerning Confessions (Revision) Canon 2017 inserted in the principal legislation, passed in 1989, a section that would create “a single, narrow exception to the principle of the otherwise absolute confidentiality of the confessional, where the confession concerns a ‘grave offence’ involving ‘child abuse’”.

“I believe we do need to make this important change to our Canon law, at this time – the work of the Royal Commission (into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse), and what we already know its recommendations will be, do constitute the exceptional and compelling circumstances that warrant us voluntarily taking the initiative to make this statement of our intent and resolve to put victims first…” Bishop Billings said.

The Diocesan Advocate, Dr Ian Gibson, seconding, said the Royal Commission had already made recommendations regarding religious confessions in its Criminal Justice Report, released on 14 August this year, in which it said in part that the criminal offence of failure to report abuse should apply to a religious confession and that legislation “should exclude any existing excuse, protection or privilege in relation to religious confessions to the extent necessary to achieve this objective”.

Dr Gibson continued: “In quoting from the report, I am not suggesting that the church must form its position on any matter of doctrine or conscience simply because the state wishes it. On the contrary, we are bound to go through our own process of discernment, as we have done. Equally, though, discernment must take into account the learnings and insights available to us from sources such as the Royal Commission; and, of course, that discernment must be a continuing process.

“We may find that the amendment of our life as a Church demands not only the acknowledgement of past wrongs, but facing what in our institutional culture and institutional practice promotes and reinforces status, authority, hierarchy and power over the lives of others.

“In relation to this Canon, I can well understand the profound concern many might have at moving away from a principle that has been part of our life for 1600 years, even if it has admitted of some small exceptions. For me, at least, those concerns weigh heavily.

“But we must also face without flinching questions about what aspects of our received and corporate life have failed us even while also enriching us; and so I second this motion.”

Bishop Lindsay Urwin, Vicar of Christ Church Brunswick, expressed “deep unease” about the Canon.

“So what is a confessor to do when he’s faced with the very sorts of things that we are concerned about in this Synod and have been concerned about for so long – when a penitent confesses a grievous sin, for which amendment of life clearly needs to go beyond the confessional itself in order to signify true repentance,” he said. “In other words, they have to ’fess up, as the young people say, not simply in the confessional but beyond it.

“It is this, and it comes from Scripture: that is the withholding of absolution. This is a serious matter. I myself, in the hundreds of confessions I have heard, have only twice withheld it.”

Bishop Urwin said there was “a faulty logic” about the Canon. If ‘X’ approached a clergyman or woman to make a confession and the confessor (priest) said, “But before I hear your confession, I need to tell you that if you confess child abuse, I will report it to the police”, Bishop Urwin asked: “How likely is it that the penitent will actually make that confession? Highly unlikely, surely!

“And supposing he does? In the practice of confession, a confessor may not be prurient. He or she may not pry. You may not ask the names of people who have been sinned against. So after the confession, do I ring the police and the authorities and say, ‘X has made his or her confession, I don’t know who the person abused is but this is what I must tell you’?

“So does the confessor then move from being a confessor, a physician of souls, to being a detective? Is it my task, then, to pry and get the name of the person, so I become a detective rather than a pastor and priest?

“Generally speaking, in Anglican practice, a confessor would talk and withhold absolution and counsel the person to make restitution. And actually, if it was me, I would say, ‘And my brother or my sister… let me go with you. Let me be with you on this journey that you are going to make of restitution. This is my responsibility as a pastor and confessor, to journey with you’. It is not a question of, ‘You confess the sin, say 10 Hail Marys or 10 Lord’s Prayers and off you go!’ That is not the way it works in the pastoral approach to the confessional in our Church.”

Bishop Urwin said that although the civil law may require it, the Canon would not require him to reveal the secrets of the confessional, “and I will not”.

“But I will withhold absolution, which is the tradition, and I will offer to walk with the person who has committed the abuse right to the end.

“One final irony, if I may. Those who have committed murder may heave a sigh of relief for I am not required to do anything with that information at all. One, two, three murders and I am not required by this Canon to reveal it.

“This is a gift in the healing ministry that from my point of view may be compromised, changed unnecessarily and frankly be fruitless in its hope.”

But the Revd Brett Murphy, Assistant Curate at Ocean Grove and Barwon Heads, said he supported the Canon, though he did so “with a torn heart between my strongly held theological views on Confession and my biblically informed morality on the topic of child sexual abuse”.

“On a personal note, as a survivor of child abuse, I can attest to its destructive power to victims and families,” Mr Murphy said.

He said passage of the legislation would be “an act which says we are a Church that sits in sackcloth and ashes in repentance for the horrible crimes of the past and that we seek to do everything within our power – be it sacramentally, practically and legally – to prevent such heinous evil from occurring again”.

The Revd Canon Professor Dorothy Lee, Dean of Trinity College Theological School and a member of General Synod’s Doctrine Commission that prepared a report endorsing the Canon, said that she nevertheless opposed the legislation “with a heavy heart”.

“I certainly didn’t agree with what we ended up writing but felt for the sake of unanimity, we had to,” Professor Lee told Synod. “I think you need to know there were a couple of us who expressed some of the reservations that Bishop Lindsay has put forward because partly we felt that there was a general misunderstanding of what Confession actually was and where the confidentiality – the so-called Seal – comes in.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m with Bishop Lindsay that if someone confesses a grave sin of whatever kind, that I cannot offer them the assurance of the Gospel, of God’s forgiveness, until I have accompanied them to the police station and they have made their confession. Otherwise it is not actually a confession and the whole notion of Mark’s Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels about metanoia is about a radical change of life, a change of heart and life… It’s not about feeling sorry and wanting some sort of reassurance for the guilt you might feel, it’s about a radical change of direction with God’s grace.

“And I think in that light, I cannot see the point of this Canon, although I respect the intentionality behind it very deeply.

“I think that we need to develop a much clearer understanding of what Confession, of what metanoia, really is about and therefore – with great reluctance and with great respect for a wonderful Doctrine Commission – I would like to oppose it.”

But the Revd Colleen Arnold-Moore, Priest-in-Charge Oakleigh Anglican Church, offered strong support for the Canon’s adoption.

“I stand today to speak for this motion primarily because I have seen the consequences within another Church where the Seal of the Confessional was used in a way for priests, not in the Anglican Church, to be protected and then moved around parishes,” she said.

“My feeling is that what has caused this specific clause to be raised is because of the way the Confession has been abused historically within Christian churches.”

Mrs Fiona McLean, of St Stephen’s Greythorn, said she was not from an Anglican tradition that included the confessional but shared with Bishop Urwin and others the same intent that the aim was to bring people to repentance.

“Those who are genuinely repenting need to be reconciled both to God and those whom they have offended, and a willingness to face up to the consequences of one’s sin is part of true repentance,” Mrs McLean said.

“I commend this motion because it makes clear that there is still a responsibility to follow up, to make sure that justice is done, that those who are in danger of being abused in future can be protected… So I urge members of Synod to support the motion.”

The Revd René Knaap, Priest-in-Charge of All Saints’ East St Kilda, opposed the Canon, saying it depended upon two serious theological errors: that some sins were worse than others, and that while the consequences might be different “all sin has the same impact on our souls and on our relationship with God”, and that it sought to impose conditions on God’s grace.

“The transaction between the penitent and God should not be intruded upon by the civil authorities… the State has no business interfering in the matters of the eternal soul,” Mr Knapp said. “This does not belong to Caesar and we should not give it to him.

“The whole raft of child protection measures we’ve undertaken and have adopted are rightly a cooperation with the State but the matter of the soul does not belong to them.

“Ladies and gentleman of the Synod, Confession is not simply a therapy the Church offers, it’s a gift… that God has given to His Church to restore sinners and to impart His mercy.”

Professor Peter Sherlock, representing Christ Church South Yarra, and the Revd Luke Hopkins, Assistant Priest of St Mary’s North Melbourne, raised concerns about whether clergy could be exposed to criminal proceedings retrospectively if the Canon passed.

Dr Gibson, responding to Mr Hopkins, said: “The view of both the Chancellor and myself is that this would not operate retrospectively. Neither of us would want to say with absolute certainty that that’s the case but I think on a proper reading, it speaks of the Confession now and in the future, not one that’s historic.”

Professor Sherlock asked Archbishop to withhold assent until the question was resolved “lest we open members of the clergy to criminal accusations”.

The Revd Emily Payne, Priest-in-Charge of St Faith’s Burwood, asked that clarity be provided to clergy around issues such as which confessions they may or may not hear or may need to refer to specifically authorised persons.

Archbishop Philip Freier, as Synod President, declared that the Bill had passed (on the voices in the House of Clergy and House of Laity) to applause.

  • The Vicar of St George’s Malvern, the Revd Canon Dr Colleen O’Reilly, successfully proposed that a report be made to the 2018 Synod on similar legislation concerning “vulnerable persons” to provide a more precise definition of who was involved.