CofE fails to back reporting of sex abuse disclosures in confession
Posted: Fri, 22nd Sep 2023
Church admits confession is "a safe space" for child sexual abusers
The Church of England has refused to back mandatory reporting of sexual abuse disclosed during confession, despite acknowledging it is "a safe space" for child sexual abusers.
In its response to a government consultation on mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse, the Church answered "Don't know" to a question asking whether there should be exceptions to mandatory reporting.
It goes on to describe confession as "a safe space for someone to begin to acknowledge what they may have done, and start the journey towards change". Research by Irish academic Dr Marie Keenan suggests that confession has been used by clerical sex offenders as a "site of respite from guilt" and may enable "abuse to continue".
The National Secular Society's response to the consultation warned the government that there must be no religious exemptions to laws requiring child sexual abuse to be reported. It said there is "ample evidence" many disclosures of child sexual abuse have been made in confession which, if acted on, could have prevented subsequent abuse.
The Church of England "recognises historic abuses of the Seal of the Confessional", the response continues. But it said those who deliver confession believe "any breach" of this confidentiality would "irretrievably damage the practice". The Church urged the government to "consider carefully questions of religious freedom" on the issue.
Eight of the Church's bishops, one of whom sits in the House of Lords by right, actively oppose mandatory reporting of sexual abuse in the confessional. The Church's ecclesiastical law upholds the confidentiality of the confessional and a 2015 Church working party decided against removing it.
Richard Scorer, NSS vice-president and head of abuse law at Slater and Gordon, said: "The CofE needs to stop facing both ways on this issue and recognise that there cannot be special religious exceptions to mandatory reporting.
"The Anglican Church in Australia has already amended its canons to enable priests to break and the seal and report evidence of abuse to the authorities where necessary.
"Given the well documented misuse of the confessional seal in the past to protect clerical sex abusers, the Church of England needs to do the same without delay".
Church's safeguarding failures
The Church's response contradicts the recommendation of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) that mandatory reporting should "not be subject" to religious exemptions, including disclosures made during "sacramental confession".
IICSA's 2020 report described the Church as creating "a place where abusers could hide" and prioritised "protecting its reputation" over the "physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of children".
The Church is currently embroiled in numerous child sexual abuse scandals. These include its decision to sack the independent body scrutinising its safeguarding practices and the failure of the former archbishop of York to act when informed an Anglican priest had raped a teenager in the 1980s.
Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said in July that Church safeguarding is "in a state of complete collapse". The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, described the Church's safeguarding as "a catastrophic and total failure".
Even if reporting of sexual abuse during confession becomes mandatory, it is unclear whether the Church would abide by the law. Welby has previously said the Church may not always follow laws enacted by parliament, noting what Christian believe "is right before God certainly may involve refusing to do what the law says". He has also said "we consciously, explicitly say that obedience to God comes ahead of loyalty to country."
NSS: The Church is "condemned of its own mouth"
NSS campaigns officer Alejandro Sanchez said: "Given the Church's abysmal record on child sexual abuse, it is unsurprising that it has declined the opportunity to endorse mandatory reporting within confession.
"What is surprising is that the Church has openly acknowledged that confession offers a 'safe space' for abusers. The Church is condemned of its own mouth.
"IICSA rightly condemned the Church's record on child safeguarding. By refusing to endorse mandatory reporting without religion exemptions, the Church shows us why: it appears to consider its own privileges more important than protecting children.
"All the more reason for the state to part ways from the Church."
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