The Catholic Church in England and Wales said Thursday that it would “carefully study” a long-awaited abuse inquiry report calling for a mandatory reporting law with no exemption for priests hearing confessions.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales (IICSA) released its final report on Oct. 20 after seven years of investigations and public hearings.
The 468-page report recommended that the U.K. government and the devolved Welsh government “introduce legislation which places certain individuals – ‘mandated reporters’ – under a statutory duty to report child sexual abuse.”
It noted that some participants in the inquiry had appealed for “exemptions for some faith-based settings or personnel and, in particular, in the context of sacramental confession.”
But IICSA insisted “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.”
Responding to the report on the Catholic Church’s behalf, the Catholic Council for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse welcomed the document’s publication and said it would examine its contents and recommendations.
The Council, chaired by Baroness Nuala O’Loan, said: “Before the publication of the [IICSA] 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 new national safeguarding body, the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency (CSSA), which began operational work in April 2021, provides a regulatory function to organizations 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.”
The Catholic Council added: “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.”
The Vatican has underlined that the secrecy of confession is inviolable, in response to a rising number of mandatory reporting laws around the world.
In a 2019 note, it said: “Any political action or legislative initiative aimed at ‘breaching’ the inviolability of the sacramental seal would constitute an unacceptable offense against libertas Ecclesiae [freedom of the Church], which does not receive its legitimacy from individual States, but from God; it would also constitute a violation of religious freedom, legally fundamental to all other freedoms, including the freedom of conscience of individual citizens, both penitents and confessors.”
During an appearance before the inquiry in 2019, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said that the sacramental seal was “an essential part of the exercise of priesthood” and he would “defend the seal of the confession, absolutely.”
Asked how the Church would respond if the inquiry recommended breaking the seal of confession, he said it “would not be well received” and “would be rejected.”
IICSA has previously published reports specifically on the Catholic Church, including case studies on the English Benedictine Congregation and the Archdiocese of Birmingham.
The inquiry’s final report mentioned the Catholic Church almost 100 times. It said that its investigation into the Church had “revealed a sorry history of child sexual abuse where abusive priests and members of religious orders and institutions preyed on children for prolonged periods of time.”
“Although there have been some improvements to current safeguarding arrangements, more recent audits have identified weaknesses. The culture and attitudes in the Roman Catholic Church have been resistant to change,” it said.
Lawyer Richard Scorer, who represents clerical abuse survivors, argued that IICSA’s recommendations did not go far enough.
“We strongly welcome mandatory reporting, something survivors have argued for for many years. However, the inquiry’s recommendation on this falls short of what we need,” he said. “The lack of any criminal penalty for failure to report abuse which is reasonably suspected creates a real risk that institutions can still turn a blind eye.”
“Children rarely disclose abuse, perpetrators almost never do. Mandatory reporting can only work if the requirement to report reasonable suspicion of abuse has teeth in the form of criminal sanctions. As currently worded, the inquiry’s proposal could end up being mandatory reporting in name only.”
Scorer, head of abuse law at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in Manchester, added: “We will fight to strengthen this proposal as it goes through parliament.”