When to Tell

Panorama on the BBC tonight had a report that promotes the notion that the Government should make it illegal not to report child abuse suspicions.

AloneTeachers and other professionals who do not report child abuse suspicions should face prosecution, the ex-director of public prosecutions says.

Keir Starmer said under a British “mandatory reporting” law, those who failed to act could be sent to jail.

Declassified files uncovered by BBC Panorama show how schools have repeatedly failed to protect children from sex offenders.

But the government said mandatory reporting was not the answer.

While statutory guidance has been issued previously urging professionals such as teachers, doctors and social workers to report child abuse, failure to do so is not a crime in England, Scotland and Wales.

In Northern Ireland, the Criminal Law Act 1967 makes it an offence to fail to disclose an arrestable offence – including those against children – to police.

Mr Starmer, who was succeeded as director of public prosecutions by Alison Saunders on Friday, said it was time to “plug a gap in the law” that had been there for a “very, very long time”.

“If you’re in a position of authority or responsibility in relation to children, and you have cause to believe that a child has been abused, or is about to be abused, you really ought to do something about it,” he said.

He said a criminal penalty would “focus people’s minds” and said there should be “immunity for individuals if they did report”.

He said the penalty for failing to report abuse could be a short jail sentence or a fine.

“There are just too many examples of cases where those who have suspected abuse have not really done anything about it and the perpetrator has either got away with it or, worse still, been able to perpetuate the offending.”

He added: “I would have a reasonably broad category of individuals that were subject to the law.

“Obviously school teachers, but others in a position of authority or responsibility in relation to children, including other educational institutions, even sporting institutions.”

Alicia Alinia, of law firm Slater and Gordon, says many of Jimmy Savile’s victims feel let down

Similar laws are already in places in countries including the US, Canada and Australia.

For the first time, the Catholic Church and the Church of England have also come out in support of mandatory reporting.

Yes, yes, yes, but what if this applies to clergy? And what exactly is a suspicion? Can it be clarified in law?

I have no problem with the idea of reporting current abuse of any form. Whenever I have undertaken any form of pastoral “confession” I have always made it clear that there are certain obligations I have that I need to undertake. If the person confessing something to me reveals that they are currently abusing somebody, then I would very likely impose a penance of needing to go to the police to share what they were doing. Remember, the seal of the confession is not complete until absolution is offered and absolution can come (sometimes) only after an act of contrition (penance). Happily the law of the land and pastoral tradition work well together in this regard.

But here’s another scenario. What happens if someone comes to you and confesses something they did thirty years ago? What do you do then? This is not a case of stopping something now, it’s reporting something that happened decades ago. What if they tell you that nothing has ever happened since?

When we did our ministry of reconciliation initial training as fresh-faced curates we had a fantastic session with an experienced priest from one of the large conurbations. He had a renowned ministry as a confessor, and one of the things he said has stuck with me till this day. He remarked that he never shared what people confessed to him because “if I start telling, no-one will come and no-one will be able to unburden themselves.” And it got me thinking, because at the end of the day priests are not social workers or teachers or community workers – they are priests, and when someone comes to confess the person we are concerned with is the one in front of us, the person whose spiritual health is a stake is the person in tears before us. How are we meant to help people confess sin if they worry about what we will do with what they tell us?

What do we think? It seems very clear to me that we have a duty of care to vulnerable children and adults, and that if someone comes to confess they should expect penance before absolution (and I make it very clear before someone starts that this is how the process works). But in the case of historic crimes? Where does the priest stop being a priest and start being an agent of the forces of secualr judgement? As someone who is quite outspoken on issues of child protection I still find myself in a quandry over this.

What say you?

38 Comments on “When to Tell

  1. What I say – firstly, it’s dishonest to sell this on the basis of “we have to protect the children”. As the stepfather of a vulnerable adult, and as someone who read the Korris Report cover-to-cover, it has to be both or neither, Mr Starmer. Thank you for raising the point, and boo to Bishop Butler.

    At what point professional status kicks in is of as much interest to me, a one-time Reader. You have the additional issue of the confessional, but I suspect that as people who have undergone mandatory CRB checking and training to work with children and vulnerable adults, Readers could easily get swept in. Some of us were deeply unhappy at having to undergo the intrusive CRB; I could easily see people looking at the liability, saying “sod it, it’s not worth it”, and walking away.

    One does also wonder about the timing of this, the week after the Shoesmith settlement…

    • I don’t think the CRB check (or DBS check as it is now) is in any way intrusive. I would love someone to explain how it is. I cannot see a problem with certifying from police and judicial records that you don’t have a criminal offence or any formal (statutory?) question over you as to your potential behaviour with vulnerable people.

      That said, yes you can see how Readers might get sucked into this. Where does the line get drawn?

      • Actually, the reason I regarded it as intrusive was nothing to do with criminal record checking – it was the fact that they expected to see my passport, and my driving licence, and my bank account details, and my NI number among other things. I went through government security clearance which was less intimidating than CRB.

        I do question whether having a quarter of the population of the UK subject to CRB is actually helpful (more so when some categories, like those who manage websites used by young people but have no contact with the users, have to go through the check). The bigger the haystack, the more room to hide needles.

        And I dislike systematised checking anyway, because it encourages a tick-the-box mentality – “they did CRB last year, they can’t be a problem”. That was what let Vanessa George in…

        …but then I’m a lone voice in the wilderness…

        • But these documents are all a matter of public record. I don’t think there’s anything intimidating about it. If we are interested in safeguarding then surely we should be happy to be checked out if we have nothing to hide?

          • This is long Peter.

            They are also the exact documents needed to commit identity fraud which need to be circulated as little as possible, so unless the system is cast-iron secure and competently run, they are a material risk.

            But that’s a side point – back to CRB itself, now also incorporating “Safeguarding”. My view is that the system as it stands is beyond pernicious. In it’s impact I will happily use words such as “evil”.

            The problem is as much in all the other stuff which meshes into CRB checks, and how most of that is applied ridiculously widely.

            Take police cautions as a focus to think around.

            If you accept a police caution it is a guilty plea which will stay on your record until you are 99 years old – I think under some New Labour Act or other. Still in place I believe. First problem: for years (decades?) cautions were sold to “offenders” as “a slap on the wrist to deal with this quickly”. Then the 99 years came in, and they were all guilty-for-life.

            That may come up under any job requiring an Enhanced CRB Check for the rest of your life, together with the opinions of the police that you may never have seen. Police can dislose “soft intelligence”, which may be baseless.

            Second problem: Perception and self-protection for recruiters. What would you as a School Governor do when recruiting staff with that coming up under a check? What will happen if parents or the newspaper get hold of the decision should you recruit them?

            Third Problem: the scope of jobs to which CRB (normal or enhanced) checks apply. Did someone say 14 million – equivalent to half the working population?

            Therefore got drunk as a student and pinched a traffic warden’s bottom as a jape? Bang! Police Caution. Sex Offenders Register. Bye bye career in any caring profession with Enhanced CRB checks. That’s from a real case.

            There was a similar case for someone who slept with a partner when one was not quite sixteen. Outraged parents made dear child complain to police. Bye bye career. That one was documented via the SWARB legal forums iirc.

            Fourth Problem: Is this data reliable? The Sex Offenders Register is bad enough (see Operation Ore for example). Here’s a chappie on the SOR for masturbating with a bicycle in a closed hotel room:


            Here’s one for simulating sex with the pavement when drunk:


            Should these people really be effectively barred from caring professions and other positions for life?

            That’s the SOR, but a database of millions of people? How many lives will that destroy?

            Fifth Problem: Does it work?

            You can produce evidence that umpteen thousand people have been refused/kicked out of jobs/had to be plumbers not teachers or nurses because the CRB computer says they meet certain criteria.

            But where’s your evidence that the people the CRB computer says are dodgy are actually more likely (and how much more likely?) to commit offences? ie How reliable is the CRB system in identifying high risk individuals?

            Sixth Problem: Having a database of millions of marginal threat or non-threat people provides a haystack which conceals the real problems, and dilutes

            If you want more data, ask your congregation and their contacts for examples. You may be surprised.

            Here are some accounts of affected people. There are many more.

            To their credit the Coalition have mitigated certain excesses – eg teen cautions are reset at 18 I believe, but the whole system should be cut off at the knees as a shameful white elephant.

            • Thanks Matt – you’re certainly right that there are issues around this, but it is the law of the land to get DBS checks and I for one wouldn’t want to advocate ignoring that.

              • I am training to be a social worker and even though I have 6 offences on my CRB / DBS – I think its worth doing. I had to explain away to GSCC prior to HCPC – my take is that DBS is not a total safety net (as someone might just not have been caught!!)

                However I am happy to explain the circumstances like why at 11 – I felt the need to burgle a house for food !!! I am not proud of the things I have done to be on my CRB but they make me who I am. This is why I want to be a social worker as I have lived a life where personal experience will be a help to my future clients.

                I had one university out of five turn me down due to my CRB but most people who meet me describe my total passion for wanting children and young people achieve their best despite circumstance they find themselves in often through no fault of their own.

                I am happy to go through 5 minutes of embarrassment in an interview to achieve a goal to help children.

  2. I’m not entirely convinced that the CRB is really anything other than an administration exercise. However, administrative hassles can be useful things. It gives organisations an excuse to put someone off that they have suspicions about while they suss them out themselves.

    But this prosecution for not reporting thing – isn’t it going to lead to a lot of time wasting as teachers and hospital staff report minor cuts and bruises from falling over in the playground ‘just in case’ they get prosecuted?

    • If one could say *that* is child abuse, then you *could* argue that it *may* *perhaps* be helpful.

      But since we can’t even get a reliable Sex Offenders Register, my view is that this is yet another moral panic from knee-jerk “think of the cheeldren” types.

      There are fewer around that previously – New Labour having been ejected – but some coailiton-wallahs have swallowed the Kool-Aid.

  3. With regard to the confessional. In the Roman Catholic Church the seal of the confessional is absolute and admits of no exceptions. I take it that if I were to confess what was not only a very serious sin but also an exceptionally serious crime, the priest could require me to demonstrate the genuineness of my contrition by giving myself up to the police, but no matter what a penitent confesses, and whether or not absolution is given, the confessor cannot ever reveal it, directly or indirectly, to any third party. As one priest expressed it, the priest in the confessional and the same priest outside the confessional are like two people who have never met, and never by any chance can meet.

    I always thought – and an Anglican friend told me that it was indeed the case – that the same applied in the Church of England. Am I mistaken?

      • Not in the Roman Catholic Church, though. Absolution is given independently of whether a penance is completed or not. Anglican understandings may differ of course!

      • Peter,
        I don’t know where you get this idea from. My understanding is that Anglican confession works in exactly the same way as Roman catholic, since they both come from pre-Reformation practice. That’s certainly what I was taught, and I can’t think why, or at what stage, Anglicans would have decided to depart from Tradition on this.
        What makes life more complicated is that it is unlikely that a confession, even without the seal, would be admissible in court – the case of April Jones showed this: Mark Bridger apparently confessed (not under seal) to the prison chaplain who went to the authorities, but the Judge in the case ruled this was inadmissible as evidence.

          • When I worked for a listening service (kind of a secular version of confession without the sin and absolution part), the only thing we were legally obliged to disclose was terrorist plots – and we wouldn’t have known who the person was anyway because we can’t trace numbers.

            Confidentiality/ the seal of confession is there for a reason. Unless you want to sit through 100 people telling you ‘I had a row with my mum and dad’, ‘I didn’t have my quiet time one day last week’ and the occasional ‘I sometimes masturbate … is that, like … erm … really bad?’, the seal has got to be absolute. Yes, refuse absolution to someone who’s harming a child, doesn’t want to turn themselves in and is just wanting cheap grace, but I’d say it was on their conscience, not yours.

            The other possibility is to say at the beginning that if someone confesses something like that you are bound to report it, just so people know the limitations. Then it’s their choice if they confess or not.

            When homosexuality was illegal there were cases when gay people ‘came out’ to their priest, their priest told their parents and they found themselves in a mental institution being given electrotherapy against their will. Look at the harm that did.

            • And obviously that last example was not desirable.

              It’s a tough nut to crack isn’t it? Give total confidentiality and people will come and confess, but what are you going to do with your conscience if they go and do the awful thing again? Don’t give total confidentiality and how are people ever going to trust you enough to sort out their soul?

              • Why is your conscience troubled if you have done what you believe to be right, and respected the seal of the confessional? If you can’t square that, then perhaps don’t hear confessions.

                Is the nub of the question partly what it is that makes abuse of a child so bad that there is a temptation to break the seal. What of a abuse of a spouse? Or the serial killer of prostitutes? Or someone who likes to boil bunny rabbits? By all means withhold absolution until repentance is shown by going to the police, but it seems that some sins are being regarded as inherently more sinful than others. By what standard do we judge that? Where do we presume to draw the line?

                • I’m not saying it is, I’m saying it might be for some.

                  We actually probably agree on this Bernard. I veer towards saying the seal of the confession is absolute and nothing is going to make me break it. But then I am in the fortunate position as an Anglican priest of having a family to feed and therefore being in jail doesn’t help.

                  • You seem to be saying that you would report current abuse, which I wouldn’t, if it was in the confessional. Once you start only “veering” towards saying the seal is absolute you start doubting it, and your conscience is going to be troubled. Stick to your guns, I’d say, and don’t worry about going to gaol – the law is on your side. You can’t be made to reveal what has happened under the seal, and no judge in the land would allow a case to go forward.

                    • It would be interesting to know if there were any test cases, especially in the light of the recent problems in Chichester and in the Roman Catholic Church.

                    • As I understand it there is no case-law, but the Canons of the CofE are part of the Law of the land, and are pretty clear. The fact that the unrepealed proviso to the 1603 Canons is unrepealled shows how strongly it is to be maintained.

            • “When homosexuality was illegal there were cases when gay people ‘came out’ to their priest, their priest told their parents…”

              NOT Roman Catholic priests, I take it – or at any rate certainly not in the confessional.

              • Yes, it was a Roman Catholic priest, I’m sorry to say. But this is only based on one person’s story of what it was like to be gay in the 60s, so it might have been only one priest. And he didn’t break the confessional, but he did break confidence with a young man who went to him for help because he was confused. I should add that later on when a priest came to visit him in hospital when he contracted AIDS he had a very different experience. The priest told him there was nothing that could separate him from the love of God. He is still a Catholic.

                I gave that as an example of where the ‘the Church must report things that are illegal’ argument can really fall down. The Church can’t absolve people from the penalties of civil law, but nor must the Church become an arm of the law just trying to turn out ‘good citizens’.

          • One reason why traditionally there is a particular place where confessions are made (the box), and a priest wears a stole to hear confessions, is so that it is absolutely clear what is and isn’t under the seal. A pastoral chat in the vicar’s study wouldn’t be under the seal.

            That said, a person could approach a priest at any time and say”I’d like to make confession.” Or if a chat takes a turn in that direction the priest might say “it sounds to me as if you’re wanting to make your confession – would you like to do that?” There is a clear formal element. It’s normally recommended not to hear confessions off the cuff, but to make an appointment, so that both sides come to it prepared, and fully knowing what is going on.

            Without that formal element, if someone starts to tell secrets, it would be right to say “Hold it a moment, it would be right for me to tell you that there are some things I can’t keep confidential,” much as a secular counsellor would.

        • Anglican confession is certainly protected by the law of the land; whether Roman Catholic confession is would be less clear, but the prison chaplain was a Roman catholic, so presumably it is.

  4. Well that’s the question isn’t it?

    As a priest, when someone comes to confess to me a crime from 30 years ago, am I interested in temporal justice for the crime or the person’s eternal status in front of God?

  5. It’s perfectly likely that the person they abused thirty years ago is still suffering from it, and that seeing the crime admitted and justice done will materially help with their psychological state now. But probably the go-to person on this is Rev Lesley, who has been both an abused young person and a priest.

    • But don’t you make my point for me in your comment? We’re not talking about the psychological state of the victim, we’re talking about the spiritual state of the perpetrator.

      And that’s not to push things under the carpet (far from it) but rather to have a serious discussion about what confession is really about.

      • So let me understand you properly: if someone comes to you and says they are sexually abusing a child, you’d go to the police. And your motives for doing so would be to protect the child from harm, yes? — surely you wouldn’t purely be doing it to protect the person confessing from committing further sin? Now, roll on thirty years – if your penitent tells you what they did, and it’s at least reasonably likely that their victim is still experiencing harm from their unconfessed crime, isn’t the principle the same? The crime of child abuse just seems substantially different from if I’d nicked your car in 1986: there’s very little chance that you’d still be in therapy about it now. Quite different with sexual molestation.

        • No, you don’t understand me properly and it may be because you are framing this in a victim / perpetrator paradigm rather than a confession engagement.

          What I’m saying is this – if someone comes to me and says “I am doing this right now” then I suspect that I would say to them that they need to take this to the relevant authority and indeed I have a duty of care to do so to prevent further harm taking place. I also have to think about what action the confessing person needs to undertake to help their spiritual life.

          But when something has happened 30 years ago there is a different dynamic. I cannot go back in time and change something. It won’t stop any abuse happening by notifying the relevant authority. That’s not to deny that what happened isn’t abusive, it’s to ask what is my job as a priest.

          And let’s be clear, this is a very different matter to what has happened recently (the last few decades) where children have come and reported abuse that has happened to them and have been ignored. We’re all taught absolutely clearly that the moment a child reports something we must report it and take action.

          • Aha – I think where we’re disagreeing then, is around the degree of continuing harm. People are healed by truth and justice – and damaged by lies and injustice, and I simply think that an adult who continues to carry around undisclosed abuse will continue to be harmed by it, to greater or lesser degree (in fact I was chatting to someone to whom this had happened the other day). I think you see this too in the parents of children who’ve been murdered, and who find some sort of closure when their murderers are brought to justice. If by not reporting an ‘old’ crime, you are allowing the victim to continue to suffer, aren’t you collaborating with a (diluted) form of that abuse? That’s a problem for your ‘job as a priest’ as well as your ‘job as a citizen’….

            • Peter you say “But when something has happened 30 years ago there is a different dynamic. I cannot go back in time and change something. It won’t stop any abuse happening by notifying the relevant authority. That’s not to deny that what happened isn’t abusive, it’s to ask what is my job as a priest” Your job as a priest is to protect the most vulnerable and sadly there is significant evidence that many who abuse children carry on abusing for decades to come. We were taught in college that child abuse was always to be disclosed.

              • David,

                I understand this perspective, but then are you asking me as a priest to report to the police every single crime from the past someone confesses? And if not, where do I draw the line and why?

                I’ll repeat what I’ve said before – it’s very clear that if there is abuse going on right now I have a duty of care to the person being abused. But my question is how my duty of care to someone 30 years ago interacts with my duty of care to the person coming to confess something that has held power over them for the past three decades.

                • My problem with “historic abuse” is that I think it is unlikely to be only historic, whatever the person may say. There have been several cases in the news of priests (as it happens) who promised they had stopped but (presumably) just couldn’t resist the new temptation when it came. When doing a precounselling training listening course we were, I seem to remember, taught not to make promises of confidentiality when it came to this sort of thing. It isn’t just about things illegal in the past. Its about protecting the vulnerable from future harm.

  6. In the Roman Catholic Church, no. Although, as I have already pointed out, the confessor could demand that the penitent reveal the crime to the authorities, and could take refusal to do so as proof that contrition is not genuine and therefore as a ground for withholding absolution. The person could, of course, receive absolution after solemnly promising to turn himself/herself in to the police, and then break the promise. But then he/she would come up against the clear Catholic teaching that, if you are not genuinely repentant and do not have a firm purpose of amendment of life, sacramental absolution is ineffectual and your sins remain unforgiven, no matter how many times you are absolved and no matter whether by a parish priest or by the pope.

    However, the confessor could not himself reveal the crime to the police or to anyone else, under any circumstances.

  7. Responding to several things, Peter:

    First, as an Anglican priest I understand the seal to cover the entire duration of the rite. The time is generally also marked by things like the priest wearing a stole, etc. Anything said during this time is under the absolute seal of the confessional, regardless of whether penance or absolution is given.

    Second, there is an important underlying question here about disclosure in general. As it happens, the law only calls some sins “crimes”. Regardless of whether the sin confessed is a crime, disclosure can be important both to prevent ongoing harm and also because truth is healing. So, it is desirable to prevent ongoing abuse of a child (which is a crime), but as a pastor I would be equally keen to stop an ongoing extra-marital affair (which is not a crime). It is desirable that a 30 year past victim of abuse (a crime) receive the vindication that truth brings. I would also like to see vindication for someone who has been lied about (not necessarily a crime).

    As a priest, I cannot disclose anything in any of these cases. But in all cases I may withhold absolution pending disclosure, whether to the police (in the case of a crime) or to some other party in the case of a sin we do not call a crime.

    In this regard, I should point out that Jesus says all sins will eventually be very publicly disclosed. We sinners must face this sooner or later. (Luke 12:2-3 ” Everything that is secret will be brought out into the open”).

    Finally, have you read the notes for the Common Worship rite of reconciliation? They give some guidance on the questions raised by your post. Specifically, the following are pertinent:

    7.2 There can be no disclosure of what is confessed to a priest. This principle holds even after the death of the penitent. The priest may not refer to what has been learnt in confession, even to the penitent, unless explicitly permitted. Some appropriate action of contrition and reparation may be required before absolution is given. A priest may withhold absolution.

    7.3 Where abuse of children or vulnerable adults is admitted in the context of confession, the priest should urge the person to report his or her behaviour to the police or social services, and should also make this a condition of absolution, or withhold absolution until this evidence of repentance has been demonstrated.

    7.4 If a penitent’s behaviour gravely threatens his or her wellbeing or that of others, the priest, while advising action on the penitent’s part, must still keep the confidence.

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