The Society under the patronage of Saint Wilfrid and Saint Hilda has asked the government to carve out an exemption for priests hearing a confession from proposed mandatory reporting of child abuse.

In a letter to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Asbuse (IICSA) dated 14 August 2023 the bishops of The Society asked that an “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”.

Under Anglican, and Catholic canon law, the seal of confession is inviolable. A priest may not repeat or disclose anything said to him by a penitent confessing their sins.  The Society’s letter notes “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.”

Enforcing mandatory reporting upon clergy would be “incredibly difficult” they observed noting “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.”

“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,” the bishops said, noting the “retention of the Seal of Confession [is]  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 world.”

IICSA’s October 2022 final report recommended the government compel mandatory reporting of child abuse and provided no exclusion for information learned through the confessional.  However, in 2019 the Church of England’s Working Group on the Seal of Confession recommended maintaining the sanctity of the seal of confession, but noted that this view was not universally held within the church.

On 2 July 2014 the Anglican Church of Australia’s General Synod voted  to open the seal of confession. Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier, the primate of Australia, argued the seal of the confession was not considered to be absolute by the English reformers. The Anglican reformers rejected private confession, he noted, and that it was all but unknown until the Catholic revival of the Nineteenth Century Oxford movement.