Thomas Seville CR explains how the seal of the confessional protects both sinner and sinned against


The church has in recent years gained a bad name in respect of her care of those to whom it has a special responsibility, children and the vulnerable. Its not alone in this respect: the institutions which have similarly failed are many and there are few exceptions. Although the Church of England has made serious and sustained efforts to respond to grim stories and consistent failings, with penitence and with determined amendment, I doubt that anyone would wish to say that all is yet satisfactory.

Sadly, the measure of confidentiality which is linked to the ministry of confession of sins to a priest, commonly termed the ‘seal,’ is taken by some as a grime which can easily be got rid of, and that doing so will make the church more appealing in the eyes of society. ‘Look at me, my face is clean!’ This is a critical issue for many good and serious church people, all sinners, and all who know the great value—indeed, the liberating value—of the sacramental ministry of confession to a priest.

Much of the hostility to the seal arises among those who have little or no experience of the ministry and may be unaware that films featuring the practice (one thinks of Hitchcock’s I Confess or McGovern’s Priest) do not convey the reality of the ministry in any serious way. It seems to many that here the church is weak, and either has been or will be a ministry which opens the way to abusers getting off scot-free and going on to abuse further, or preventing someone who has suffered abuse from being able to get free of their abuser.

If this is true it would be one of the more weighty arguments against the seal. However, the reality is very different and it needs to be spoken of with confidence. The seal makes the church a safer place

The seal safeguards. If a confession is as it says on the tin, the penitent is sorry for sins they have done and intends to amend. If it is someone who is confessing to sexual abuse of a child, it may be assumed safely that the one confessing intends to turn away and amend; they are on the way of penitence. Appropriate questions serve to bring this on further. The confessor is an assistant to the turn to Christ. The intention to change ways is an essential part of the sacrament and may well involve the penitent doing something which puts his or her actions into the public domain, certainly doing something that puts out of harm’s way the person whose actions he or she had affected. This may well be the first and only place for something to be spoken out loud to another person, the first step on a possibly difficult path. The confessor, although bound to ‘keep stumm,’ does not minister alone, but as a representative of Christ and his Church. It is proper, indeed something which should follow from such a case as this, that with the penitent’s say so, penitence calls for accompaniment, including recourse to services with skills and powers which the confessor does not have.

This is all the more the case when a penitent, perhaps feeling blame for something which they have no blame, comes to make known, perhaps for the first time, something which has happened to them or to someone close to them. Although it would be wrong to treat this as parallel to the case where a terrible sin was being confessed, this might well be the first and only place where something which has been the cause of continuing pain is spoken out loud to another person, a path which is going to be difficult, and almost certainly painful. It is brought to a secure place, a private place, but it is also a place of light and a place of hope. I do not wish to underestimate the challenges which may well meet the one abused after such a confession, but in kind they would be the same as those encountered on going to a safeguarding officer. For a confessor there would be challenges: placarding the divine mercy, raising the love of self in that penitent, and gently guiding them to sources of support which others are better able to give, comes to mind.

Such confessions are rare, and those of abusers extremely so. This is surely a matter of sorrow, namely that more sinners—the murderer, the drug dealer, the arms dealer et al.—do not repent and come to Christ. The church in her penitential ministry is no doubt called to accompany such people on their journey to redemption, challenging though these examples are. However, this is a ministry in which Christ holds out his mercy and in which he also gives strength to the penitent and to the one sinned against; wonders happen. It is not known as a ‘sacrament of confession’ for nothing. The ‘seal’ marks a space for grace and the coming of life. It does so in a way that makes the church a safer place; it also embodies her mission and makes for the good of her name.