Church of England says sex abuse secrets heard in confession will be reported to police

Canterbury Cathedral from the south-west. | Wikimedia Commons/Antony McCallum

The Church of England has issued guidance instructing clergy to tell parishioners that information divulged about sex abuse during confession will have to be reported to the police.

The guidance, issued by the diocese of Canterbury, asks priests to tell penitents that they are "duty bound" to tell the authorities about confessions that "raises a concern about the wellbeing or safeguarding" of other parishioners.

According to The Telegraph, the Church's canon law holds that any information gathered through confession must be kept secret.

Diocesan Secretary Julian Hills noted that the release of the guidance was prompted by a case in which a member of the clergy was told about sexual abuse during a confession.

Hills stated that the "legal and moral position of the priest was called into question" after a penitent shared information about ongoing abuse.

"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," Hills said, according to The Telegraph.

Hills maintained that the new guidance would not "abolish the seal of the confessional," noting that it was aimed at advising penitents not to share information that would "legally compromise the position of the priest" during confession.

"The guidance was drafted in early 2015, after seeking independent legal advice and in consultation with the then Acting Head of Delivery for the National Safeguarding Team," he went on to say.

The Telegraph noted that a working group is preparing to discuss the issue of sex abuse information gathered during confession. The issue has been the focus of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse earlier this year.

Peter Hancock, the bishop of Bath and Wells, noted that as many as 3,300 sex abuse cases have been reported to the Church in the form of concerns and allegations.

Eighteen percent of the cases involve Church officials, but lay individuals and other churchgoers have also been accused in incidents that took place within the church.

In March, the independent inquiry was told that sexual abuse thrived in the church because an "excessive emphasis" has been placed on forgiving the abusers.

Fiona Scolding QC, the lead lawyer for the Anglican strand of the inquiry, lamented that those who report the abuse were left feeling isolated if they decline to forgive the abuser.

She accused the Church of prioritizing its reputation ahead of the need to safeguard children due to its fear of criticism from outside the Church.