With General Synod poised to discuss abolishing the seal of confession, David Ackerman explores the legal background and context of confidentiality between priest and penitent

The 1994 film Priest has as its main plot the harrowing dilemma of a priest hearing about abuse in the confessional. As with any dramatic plot, what would actually happen in real life is different. Any priest hearing of abuse confessed by a penitent should encourage disclosure outside of confession. The Guidelines for the professional conduct of the clergy (2003) state that while ‘there can be no disclosure of what is confessed to a priest’ (7.2), ‘where abuse of children or vulnerable adults is admitted in the context of confession, the priest should urge the person to report his or her behaviour to the police or social services, and should also make this a condition of absolution, or withhold absolution until this evidence of repentance has been demonstrated’ (7.3).

Condition of absolution

It needs to be said at the outset that anyone approaching a priest to confess sins does so because they have already recognized sinfulness and desire absolution and amendment. Asking a priest to hear one’s confession is of a different magnitude to talking about the flower rota. The above guidelines are clear that absolution is not to be given lightly and that where abuse has happened or is happening the penitent should be told to disclose what has happened to the statutory authorities. It is not for the priest to report what has been heard; it is the priest’s responsibility to insist that the penitent repeats elsewhere what has been said as a condition of absolution.

The 2003 guidelines, asserting the absolute confidentiality of confession, echo a long established and accepted principle. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) decreed: ‘Let the confessor take absolute care not to betray the sinner through word or sign, or in any other way whatsoever… For we decree that he who presumes to reveal a sin which has been manifested to him in the tribunal of penance is not only to be deposed from the priestly office, but also to be consigned to a closed monastery for perpetual penance.’ In the Roman Catholic Church today a priest who breaks the seal of confession is excommunicated.

A complex area

Whether a priest may withhold information heard under the seal in an English secular court is a complex area. Put simply, if a priest volunteers evidence gained in confession it may be laid before the court at the discretion of the judge. Whether a judge would insist a priest disclosed what has been heard in confession is again a matter of discretion. However, a priest of the Church of England should know that information given in confession must never be volunteered and any judge would consider church law, which is of course the law of the land. Canon 113 states: ‘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 in 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 (except they be such crimes as by the laws of this realm his own life may be called into question for concealing the same), under pain of irregularity.’

The 1959 Convocation of Canterbury declared by Act of Convocation that confidentiality in confession is an ‘essential principle of Church doctrine’: ‘That this House reaffirms as an essential principle of Church doctrine that if any person confess his secret and hidden sin to a priest for the unburdening of his conscience, and to receive spiritual consolation and absolution from him, such priest is strictly charged that he do not at any time reveal or make known to any person whatsoever any sin so committed to his trust and secrecy’.


Presumably it is Canon 113 which many in General Synod would like to amend, compelling clergy to disclose what they have heard if there is a grave reason for doing so. But what might to some appear to be a simple and worthy change, for the best of intentions has its dangers. Laws must never be dreamt up, or amended, to ‘give a signal’. There are many motives to introduce laws: the nineteenth-century anti-ritualistic
legislation was clearly meant, in part, to cheer up Queen Victoria. Laws also have unintended consequences. To change a signature on a PCC account has become a thing of nightmares owing to money laundering legislation; under the last government, local authorities used anti-terrorism legislation to check up on which days people were putting out their bins.

So I will end with two warnings: If General Synod proposes to Parliament that the seal may be broken for a reason, the seal is broken absolutely. The Church of England will have abandoned the confidentiality of confession as an essential principle of Church doctrine, which is its current teaching. Secondly, the result of amending Canon 113 may well have the unintended consequence of having the opposite effect of what is proposed. If a remorseful penitent knows that what is confessed may be reported, is he or she more or less likely to confess? At least at the moment, however rarely, a conversation may be had and a priest in confession may insist on disclosure, in this sacred and uniquely confidential environment. Where no conversation takes place, who in the end is most at risk? ND