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Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Unit of The Society. IICSA Response

14 August 2023

Dear Sir / Madam,

Response from The Society's Council of Bishops to the Government's consultation on
mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse

1. We welcome this opportunity to respond to the Government's consultation on mandatory
reporting of child sexual abuse. As the members of The Society's Council of Bishops, we
promote and maintain Catholic teaching and practice within the Church of England. Further
details are available via: https://sswsh.com/

2. We strongly support all efforts to combat and eradicate child sexual abuse, including those
being taken through the IICSA process. The Church's record on this matter is a source of
significant shame and there can be no room for complacency in correcting that lamentable
state of affairs.

3. There is one specific issue -- a matter of religious freedom and conscience -- which we feel
obliged to bring to your attention and that relates to what is known as the Seal of the
Christian sacrament of Confession. We imagine that the Roman Catholic bishops of England
and Wales will also be bringing this matter to your attention.

4. A priest hearing a confession has always been bound by a strict and solemn duty not to
breach the confidentiality of what he has been told within that sacramental encounter. This is
present not only in the Roman Catholic tradition but also in the Anglican tradition which we
represent. We should add that the Book of Common Prayer, approved for use in 1662 and the
cornerstone of Church of England practice, makes provision for private confession.

5. It is being proposed that there should be mandatory reporting of any disclosure of child
sexual abuse with the only exception being that of a consensual relationship between a child
aged between 13 and 15 and another individual whose age is not more than three years apart
from that of the child.

6. We ask that a second exception be added to make provision for the Seal of the
sacrament of Confession, as practised in the Roman Catholic Church and parts of the
Church of England.

7. In making this request, we are fully aware that the notion of the retention of the Seal will
bring with it concerns for some survivors and victims of child sexual abuse in the Church.
We understand the source of those concerns and offer in return:
• A pledge of our sincerity in setting forth our strongly held position.
• Our deep revulsion at the many examples of child sexual abuse in the Church.
• A statement of our understanding of the healing role which sacramental Confession,
including its Seal, can play

8. Our case for the retention of the Seal is set out below under the following headings:
• Safeguarding and the reality of Confession.
• Practicality and enforceability.
• Religious freedom and conscience.
Safeguarding and the reality of Confession

9. The loss of the Seal would take away from survivors a safe space for disclosure and would
be doing so against the incredibly remote contingency, and unproven concern, that
perpetrators will abuse the Seal. This will not make us a safer church. Rather it will take
away from many victims and survivors a place in which a journey of healing can begin.

10. The priest is bound by the Seal, but the penitent is not. We are not aware of examples of
penitents in the Church of England alleging that the 'process' of Confession has been in some
way misused by priests to cover up instances of child sexual abuse nor indeed of the
existence of any other types of such evidence.

11. We append an anonymous contribution from a Church of England priest in our tradition
who powerfully makes the case for retaining the Seal based on the practice -- over many years
-- of sacramental Confession.
Practicality and enforceability

12. How will priests know when to divulge and when not to? What about a child who
confesses abuse? Or someone who admits a crime other than child abuse? We would need
comprehensive Government guidelines for clergy on what is disclosable and what is not.

13. The enforcement of mandatory reporting in this context would be incredibly difficult. The
very essence of sacramental Confession is that it is a private, confidential encounter. It is far
from clear how such an arrangement could be satisfactorily 'policed' by secular authorities.
Religious freedom and conscience

14. We find it alarming that the Government is considering allowing the State to overhear the
most intimate conversation between confessor and penitent and thereby potentially denying
people the opportunity to deal with sin in confidence.
15. Confidentiality is an essential ingredient of Confession because we regard the
conversation to between Christ and the penitent and it must therefore remain 'sealed' by the
sacrament. To qualify it in certain circumstances would be to undermine the sacrament
altogether and would represent a major theological problem for us.

16. We therefore regard the retention of the Seal of Confession to be a matter of religious
freedom and conscience. We stress that these are deeply held matters of religious faith and
conviction, based on many centuries of practice throughout the wor

With our best wishes,

The Rt Revd Tony Robinson, Bishop of Wakefield,
Chairman of The Society's Council of Bishops
The Rt Revd Stephen Race, Bishop of Beverley
The Rt Revd Philip North, Bishop of Blackburn
The Rt Revd Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester
The Rt Revd Jonathan Baker, Bishop of Fulham
The Rt Revd Will Hazlewood, Bishop of Lewes
The Rt Revd Paul Thomas, Bishop of Oswestry
The Rt Revd Norman Banks, Bishop of Richborough

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