Sexual Abuse and Confidentiality

NB The procedures and requirements for Anglican ministers have changed since this article was published. For an update, visit the Anglican Diocese of Sydney website.

You are an Anglican minister, and the youth worker of the local Presbyterian Church comes to you and confesses that he has been sexually abusing some of the young women in his care, and begs you to keep it confidential and pray with him. What ought you do?

Regrettably, this problem is not entirely hypothetical, but a composite of my experience and that of friends.Let me give a number of reasons why, as well as praying with the Youth Worker, I would inform the relevant families, and church and Police authorities.

First, young women who are sexually abused (and commonly this means being raped) by respected authority figures are locked into a situation which disgusts, terrifies, and frequently renders them powerless. Too often the victim blames herself for the seemingly out of character behaviour of this leading male person who has an honoured position in the institution they both revere, and who is recognised as havingresponsibility for her care. Further, the victim often fears the disgrace which will not only cling to herself for being sexually involved with the minister, but also the disgrace that will fall on him, on his family (especially if he is married) and on the institution. And who will take her seriously? Who will believe her? After all, it has been hard enough to believe it herself. Then, not unsurprisingly, the victim is less able to effectively resist subsequent attacks; which further sinks her into what is fast becoming a vicious cycle of ever greater despair and powerlessness.

Common decency, justice and love demand that the primary consideration be that the victim or victims are released from this life of abject fear and self-loathing by the news that the perpetrator is known, the deed revealed, and that she has the protection of both church and society. She then has access not only to hospital counselling services, but to the spiritual support of the senior minister. A tearful confession by the perpetrator to you in private just does not do that.

Moreover, and this is a second reason, by keeping it strictly private there is more than a chance that our hypothetical youth worker will fall back into the old destructive pattern of behaviour, and offend again. Thirdly, the victims’ families need to know so that they can not only seek appropriate medical and psychological support for the victim, and surround her with intimate accepting love, but also assist in working out more appropriate protective strategies against any future attempts at sexual assault.

Fourthly, the minister in charge and the elders need to know so as to remove the offender, and better protect the youth of the church.

I have breached Canon Law

Perhaps unbelievably, whereas State law compels ordinary citizens, including teachers, social workers and medical practitioners, to report suspected sexual abuse of minors, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney invoked an option in the relevant NSW laws which allows ministers of religion exemption from this obligation. But worse, in 1990, and again in October of this year, the Synod of Sydney Diocese passed a church law (known as ‘canon law’) which forbids ministers to report such crimes:

If any person confesses his or her secret and hidden sins to an ordained minister for the unburdening of conscience and to receive spiritual consolation and ease of mind, such minister shall not at any time reveal or make known any crime or offence or sin so confessed and committed to trust and secrecy by that person without the consent of that person.

Most sadly, although the former Archbishop of Sydney, Donald Robinson, courageously (but unsuccessfully) spoke against this canon at the national Synod of the Anglican denomination, not a single word was said against it when Sydney itself once again adopted the law as its own in October.

Why complete confidentiality?

Is the demand and keeping of such strict confidentiality right? What reasons are advanced for it? What light does the gospel shed on it? What ought we do?

Three reasons are generally advanced in favour:

  • “ministers should keep confidences”
  • “lawyers have the same obligation (and privilege of exemption from state laws)”
  • “the demand for confidentiality was already there in the canons of 1603”.

There are two, and not unrelated, forms of the first reason. It is urged that the catholic church has long believed that the confession of sins to a priest is the major channel of saving grace to a Christian, and that to violate ‘the confidentiality of the confessional’ is heinous because it creates a climate where Christians will avoid such confession, and thus be in danger of eternal torment. That is, the priest or clergyperson is in a privileged relation, created by God, by which God dispenses forgiveness and comfort. Such a relation must stand above all other human concerns. However, the Bible makes it absolutely clear, and the Anglican Reformers of the sixteenth century unambiguously grasped this, that God forgives sins in person, directly, through the gospel. We may confess our sins to a brother or sister to receive advice and assuring news from Scripture, but we do not have to do so of necessity. To make it a necessity is to deny the gospel of God’s free forgiveness through the death of his Son. God takes direct responsibility and action for forgiving us through his word of the gospel, and we ought see human ministry, although important, “as a sort of delegated work”(John Calvin).

The second form of “ministers should keep confidences”is perhaps a little vague in expression, but important in its purpose—“it is something that ministers just ought to do; it characterises them as ministers”. The intent commands respect. Certainly, ministers should not be gossips. I have witnessed the devastation on the face of a friend hours after she was raped when an acquaintance informed her on the telephone that she knew of the incident—because the clergyperson she had confided in had broadcast the news. I too want ministers to be obliged to keep confidences. But without limit, under all circumstances?

The appeal to professional parity with lawyers needs to be quickly put to one side as an envy which is out of keeping with the New Testament’s description of Christian ministers as menials (diakonoi in Greek) and slaves (douloi) in the service of Jesus Christ and the neighbour.

Finally, “the demand for confidentiality was already there in the canons of 1603”. That is only a half-truth. The canon of 1603 adds: “except they be such crimes as by the laws of this realm his own life [the minister’s] may be called into question for concealing the same”. Now, the post-Reformation canons of 1603 are not without their difficulties, but this canon refuses to go down the trail of complete confidentiality, and for good reasons which are ultimately rooted in the gospel. At least in some sense, ministerial confidentiality must be subject to the wider concerns of secular society, in this case, crimes so evil that even the concealment of them warrants the death penalty.

True and untrue confidentiality

The theological reasons for concerns wider than the immediate interests of the individual penitent also governing the degree of confidentiality are quite simple. First, as already stated, God forgives directly and he is the one who takes final responsibility for giving spiritual counsel and comfort to the penitent. Secondly, we are commanded to love all people, and especially the victims of injustice, as we have opportunity. Thirdly, God has appointed our secular rulers, for our good, and they must be obeyed in the proper discharge of their duty. This is not just a command, but a promise we have to greet not with a sectarian cynicism, but joyful trust and compliance (Rom 13:1-7).

In the matter of sexual abuse of children and women, God’s own good appointees in Parliament have expressed very great concern and vigorously instituted laws and procedures (in social welfarework, policing, in hospitals and in the judiciary) to combat this evil. To bypass these for the sake of an alleged special ministerial confidentiality is to vaunt ourselves not only against common sense, but against God’s officers. God has made us to live in human communities, and we are accountable to each other. And if you think that Christians can handle these matters better than unbelievers, please think again. Experience shows that clergy, not only at the congregational level but even as leaders of denominations, too often behave most inappropriately—with injustice and lack of wisdom—in these matters. We have a tendency to act in a sectarian manner—to close ranks, deal with it ourselves, not entrusting ourselves and the problem to the officers of the secular state, and thus not to God.

What then is a true or moral confidentiality? What is an untrue and immoral confidentiality? Let me offer two definitions.

  • True and moral confidentiality is keeping information from those who have no right to know it.
  • Untrue and immoral confidentiality is keeping information from those who have a right to know it.

Does not a wife, who may also have to protect an unborn child, have a right to know that her husband has AIDS? Does not an abused woman have a right to the relief, healing and reinstatement that the judicial system, the hospital, her family and even her church can bring?

In dealing with us on the Cross, God did not do it secretly, behind doors to hide shame, but openly before the world. He too commands the same openness, and promises that it is beneficial. Confidentiality must be subject to these fundamentals. What to do when canon law demands one thing, and godliness an other? Pray for courage to do the godly, and for God to give grace to Synod to come to its right mind.

Comments are closed.