LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A government-established inquiry into sexual abuse says priests should be legally required to report abuse, even if it means violating the seal of confession.
The final report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in England and Wales was issued on Oct. 20, after a years-long investigation into abuse in institutional settings.
The IICSA had previously published separate reports on different Catholic institutions, including the Catholic Church as a whole, the country’s Benedictine Congregation and the Archdiocese of Birmingham.
IICSA was not limited to the Catholic Church and also released reports on the Anglican Church and civil institutions.
The 2020 IICSA report on the Catholic Church didn’t make any specific recommendations about mandatory reporting and the seal of confession, saying it would form part of the Inquiry’s final report.
In the final report, the authors recommended that a person should be required to report “when they either receive a disclosure of child sexual abuse from a child or perpetrator, or witness a child being sexually abused,” adding that a “failure to report in those circumstances should be a criminal offence.”
In addition, the IICSA final report said a law requiring an individual to ‘know’ that a child has been sexually abused implies that the reporter would have to be satisfied of the truth of the allegation, explain that this would be “uncomplicated” if the person had “heard a confession by the perpetrator.”
Later in the report, the inquiry specifically addressed the question of the seal of sacramental confession.
“Some core participants and witnesses argued that a mandatory reporting law ought to provide exemptions for some faith-based settings or personnel and, in particular, in the context of sacramental confession. As the Inquiry has already noted, the respect of a range of religions or beliefs is recognized as a hallmark of a liberal democracy. Nonetheless, neither the freedom of religion or belief nor the rights of parents with regard to the education of their children can ever justify the ill-treatment of children or prevent governmental authorities from taking measures necessary to protect children from harm. The Inquiry therefore considers that mandatory reporting as set out in this report should be an absolute obligation; it should not be subject to exceptions based on relationships of confidentiality, religious or otherwise,” the report reads.
Catholic priests are forbidden by Church law from violating the seal of confession under penalty of excommunication.
A similar recommendation on mandatory reporting of the sexual abuse of children made by the Final Report of the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, published in December 2017.
In a response to the recommendation published in 2020, the Vatican emphasized “a confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.”
“However, even if the priest is bound to scrupulously uphold the seal of the confessional, he certainly may, and indeed in certain cases should, encourage a victim to seek help outside the confessional or, when appropriate, to report an instance of abuse to the authorities,” the Vatican document said.
“It should be recalled also that the confessional provides an opportunity – perhaps the only one – for those who have committed sexual abuse to admit to the fact. In that moment the possibility is created for the confessor to counsel and indeed to admonish the penitent, urging him to contrition, amendment of life and the restoration of justice,” the Vatican continued.
“Were it to become the practice, however, for confessors to denounce those who confessed to child sexual abuse, no such penitent would ever approach the sacrament and a precious opportunity for repentance and reform would be lost,” it added.
In a statement published on the website of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales on Oct. 20, the Catholic Council said it welcomed the IICSA final report, adding that it would “carefully study its contents and recommendations.”
The Catholic Council was created by different Catholic institutions in 2015 to support the organizations that make up the Catholic Church in England and Wales in their engagement with IICSA and ensured that the evidence required by the Inquiry was collated appropriately.
“In the work of safeguarding all who are members of, or come into contact with, the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, at no point will the Church stop on its journey of dedicated effort in making the life and work of the Church safe for all. Before the publication of the case study report into the Roman Catholic Church in November 2020, the Church commissioned an independent review into its safeguarding work and structures which is in the process of being implemented,” the statement said.
“The new national safeguarding body, the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency (CSSA), which began operational work in April 2021, provides a regulatory function to organisations within the Church in England and Wales ensuring that standards are upheld, and all safeguarding processes adhered to. These changes were fully aligned with the Inquiry’s recommendations in the case study report,” it continued.
“Key to this progress is the voice of victims and survivors of abuse which has been an integral element in the development of this new agency. The Church remains committed to listening with humility to those who have been hurt by the actions of Church members so that their experiences will inform our work,” the Catholic Council said.
“It is important for us to again offer an unreserved apology to all those who have been hurt by abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and to reaffirm our commitment to the continued refinement and improvement of our safeguarding work to protect all children and the vulnerable,” it concluded.
The Catholic Council didn’t immediately address the recommendation that clergy be required to violate the seal of confession when it comes to the sexual abuse of children.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome