frgavin on September 22nd, 2014

Vicars set to reveal secrets of confession: Church of England may axe 400-year-old sacred law to let clergy report sex attackers

By Jonathan Petre for The Mail on Sunday

The former Bishop of Chelmsford John Gladwin is pressing for rules to be relaxed so that clergy can report serious crimes such as child abuse

The former Bishop of Chelmsford John Gladwin is pressing for rules to be relaxed so that clergy can report serious crimes such as child abuse

For centuries the secrecy of the confessional has been sacrosanct, but the Church of England may relax the rules to allow clergy to reveal serious crimes such as child abuse.

Former Bishop of Chelmsford John Gladwin – who last year led an inquiry into clerical sex abuse in the Church of England – is pressing for the changes, along with members of the Church’s ‘parliament’, the General Synod.

But any change will be fiercely resisted by traditionalists who think clergy should retain the trust of worshippers. It will also cause tensions with Roman Catholics, who believe the seal of the confessional should remain inviolable.

Bishop Gladwin’s moves follow a decision by the Anglican Church of Australia to allow its priests to report crimes they hear during confession to the police.

The sacrament of penance, in which a believer privately confesses their sins to a priest, is usually associated with the Catholic Church.

However about a quarter of the Church of England’s clergy hear confessions – usually face to face in a private room rather than in a booth in a church. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby last year urged more Anglicans to adopt the practice, saying the experience could be ‘enormously powerful’.

However Bishop Gladwin, whose report for Archbishop Welby led to an apology by the Church to victims, said: ‘It is very important that anything criminal that involves the abuse of people should not be protected. Action has to happen.’

He said the Church of England had to ensure any reforms were workable, but the Australian Church had provided ‘a very good model’.

For more than 400 years clergy have been banned under Church law from disclosing ‘secret and hidden sins’ revealed by penitents, including criminal offences.

But in July the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia voted to allow clergy to go to the police if the person who confessed refused to do so, saying the safety of victims must be paramount.

These crimes include child abuse, child pornography or other offences that would lead to a jail term of five years or more. Dioceses in Australia are expected to introduce the changes by the end of the year.

And the Rev Simon Cawdell, a member of the Church of England’s General Synod, has tabled a motion calling for Church law to be amended so priests are no longer compelled to keep confessions of abuse confidential.

The issue could be raised at the next General Synod meeting in November, as bishops brace themselves for tough questioning from a Government inquiry into abuse in institutions including the Church.

A Church of England spokesman said: ‘The guidelines for clergy are being considered for debate in November at General Synod. The Australian model is one of a number of options which will be considered as part of the ongoing discussions.’

However one senior Synod member said: ‘If we go down the Australian route we have destroyed the priesthood. You should be able to go to a priest and tell them everything. This is the Roman Catholic tradition and we have always followed it. If we did something different now it would upset everybody.’

And the Catholic Bishop of Arundel and Brighton Kieran Conry said a Church of England rule change could put pressure on the Catholic Church to do the same, but added: ‘We will never relax the absolute requirement of confidentiality.’

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