It is such a quintessential movie moment, the killer slinks into the confession box and breathlessly tells all to the priest on the other side who fumbles nervously at his rosary – he knows the truth, but can never tell…
This doesn’t come up very often in family law – insert your own withering remark about Catholic priests here if you wish. This, however, is a case that not only relates to it, but helpfully gives us a Victorian era criminal law authority for the legal sanctity of the confession box.
(It is also timely because I had to break off from House of Games last night for a short debate as to whether or not Reverends who appear on television HAVE to wear the dog collar even when they are on a game-show, so ecumenical matters are at the forefront of my mind this week)
Lancashire County Council v E & F  EWHC 182 (Fam) (04 February 2020)
This arose from a case in which the mother spoke to the members of her Jehovah’s Witnesses Church about allegations that the father had sexually abused the children. The Jehovah’s Witnesses Community also spoke with the father about these matters and it seems carried out their own investigation.
Within care proceedings, the Local Authority wished to see those notes. The Jehovah’s Witnesses Community opposed that, and when a witness summons was issued sought to set it aside. They were willing to provide the records relating to the conversations that they had had with the mother (who was consenting to the production) but not those with the father.
- Mr Achonu argues there is a duty of confidentiality by elders or Ministers of religion and they are unable to disclose information which has been communicated to them in the course of confidential “spiritual counselling” without the express consent of the individuals concerned. He says that that duty of confidentiality is protected by article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In the light of this argument he says that A and B are prepared to disclose information given to them by the Mother, because she has provided her consent, but not by the Father because he has not given consent. It is not at all clear how in practice this would work, given that much of the information sought relates to both of them. However, this issue is somewhat academic given the conclusions I have reached in this judgment.
- Mr Achonu argues that A and B are under a spiritual duty not to disclose confidential religious communications and that if such confidence is breached then individuals might no longer confide in their ministers.
- He relies by analogy on the approach in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) Schedule 1, and the provisions therein, which protect confidential information, including that relating to spiritual counselling in s.12 (b), and a balancing exercise has to be undertaken under Schedule 1 of PACE when disclosure of such records is sought. He argues there is an analogy with the position in R v H 2019 1 WLR 3744 where the Court of Appeal refused to order the disclosure of discussions between an offender manager and an offender. The Court said that it would only order such confidential discussions to be disclosed if there was a very good reason, because it would be contrary to public policy to do so. I note that at  the boundaries of the confidentiality being asserted are expressly said to be “apart from child protection issues….“. Therefore this case is of no assistance to Mr Achonu on the facts of the present case.
- R v H at [53 states];
- Firstly, it would in our view be contrary to public policy to breach the confidentiality of discussions of the kind save for very good reason. Such discussions are not subject to privilege in the sense that something a defendant or appellant tells his lawyers would be; and the internal rules of Camden social services (or of any other local authority’s officers) are not binding in the courts; but we regard them as well drafted, sensible and worthy of respect. There is a distinction between disclosure necessary to avoid imminent future criminality (in particular a threat to someone’s life or safety) and the obtaining of admissions to past offences. It would be extremely unfortunate if convicted defendants (whether young or adult) were deterred from speaking to those charged with their supervision or rehabilitation until any appeal against conviction had been dealt with.
- Mr Achonu argues that the communications with A and B, and the documents sought under the witness summons, should be treated in the same way as a religious confession. He relies on R v Hay (1896) 2 F&F4, which is cited in Archbold at 12-21, as support for the proposition that; “the position of priest and penitent has not been authoritatively decided, but the tendency of judicial dicta is that, while in strict law the privilege does not exist, a minister of religion should not be required to give evidence as to a confession made to him.”
Well, if you don’t think we’re about to look at R v Hay and find out what it is all about, then you don’t know me very well.
In R v Hay, a priest was found to have a stolen watch, and had thus (unwittingly received stolen goods). The police wanted to know who had sold him the watch and the priest refused. At a trial, the priest had to give evidence. He refused to answer questions as to who had sold him the watch.
The Judge said :-
I have already told you plainly I cannot enter into this question. All I can say is you are bound to answer. From whom did you receive that watch. On the ground I have stated to you, you are not asked to disclose anything that a penitent may have said to you in the confessional. That you are not asked to disclose; but you are asked to disclose from whom you received stolen property on the 25th of December last. Do you answer it or do you not?
When the priest continued to refuse to answer the Judge sent him to prison for contempt.
The decision of the Court was that whilst the priest could legitimately refuse to answer any question about what had or had not been said to him in the confessional, he could not extend that beyond it even if it were about a parishioner who came to confession. The watch had not been sold to him in the confession box, so the protection did not apply.
I’m afraid I can’t find a link to the judgment, but the Wikipedia page gives more detail for those who are interested.
It immediately seems to me that the church was on a sticky wicket trying to rely on R v Hay as authority for not disclosing the evidence, because the case is very specific that it applies only to evidence obtained in the confessional.
Mr Achonu argues that the duty of confidentiality is not limited to the confessional but can have a wider remit. He says that any information revealed during spiritual counselling is subject to the duty of confidentiality. It is not entirely clear to me what would be covered by spiritual counselling, but given that A and B are refusing to produce any information about what they knew or what investigations were made unless consent is given, it would appear to be being argued that all information relating to the alleged sexual abuse was related to spiritual counselling and thus confidential.
Hard to be sure when you can’t see the documents to see what was and wasn’t spiritual counselling, but it seems a thin argument. The thinness of the argument is emphasised when Canadian authorities are produced in aid. Unless Lancashire is suddenly transplanted to Quebec, it is going to be of limited value.
- Mr Achonu relies on a Canadian Supreme Court case R v Gruenke  3 RCS 263. The issue was whether the communications between the Defendant, who was accused of murder, and her pastor were protected by common law privilege or under the Canadian Bill of Rights. The approach of the Court was not to apply a strict approach to what was a confession, see , but to look at all the relevant circumstances and apply what is known in Canada as the Wigmore criteria. These are set out at p.284 as follows;
- 1. The communications must originate in a confidence that they will not be disclosed.
2. This element of confidentiality must be essential to the full and satisfactory maintenance of the relation between the parties.
3. The relation must be one which in the opinion of the community ought to be sedulously fostered.
4. The injury that would inure to the relation by the disclosure of the communications must be greater than the benefit thereby gained for the correct disposal of litigation.
- These criteria are very similar to the approach taken in article 9(1) and (2). The communications must fall within the said religious duty of confidentiality and if they do so any order to disclose must meet a proportionality test.
Given that the purpose of disclosure is to assist the Court in deciding what harm, if any, the children suffered and thereafter to make decisions about their welfare, it is hard to see proportionality coming to the aid of the Church here.
- There are a whole series of reasons, some overlapping, as to why the witness summons should be upheld and disclosure ordered and why I reject Mr Achonu’s submissions.
- Firstly, there is no evidence that the material sought through the witness summons was in any sense a confession or akin to a confession. It appears that the allegation of sexual abuse came to the elders’ attention because the Mother reported it, not because the Father confessed to the elders, or sought spiritual counselling. The elders then carried out some form of investigation and met with the Father, probably on more than one occasion. It is possible that at some point the Father “confessed”, but I have no evidence this was the case. In any event, the investigation cannot itself amount to a confession. Therefore, to the degree that there is a duty of confidentiality in relation to a confession, which I am prepared to assume on the basis of R v Hay, but not decide, it would not arise here.
- Secondly, the material that the Council seeks also does not, on the evidence, amount to “spiritual counselling”. There was an investigation into E’s allegations. The whole focus of Mr Achonu’s submissions on this point appears to me to be misconceived. To describe the material sought as being the product of spiritual counselling is to focus on the Father and concerns about his religious confidentiality, rather than on the child. The elders appear to have been neither carrying out an investigation into the child’s allegations and how she could be protected, nor providing spiritual counselling to the Father. Mr Achonu’s submission in my view provides a plain example of his clients, with or without the agreement of the Congregation more widely, putting the Father’s interests above those of the child.
- Thirdly, and in any event, the Congregation’s own policy, certainly that of 2013 and probably the 2018 version, indicate that where a conversation amounts to spiritual counselling but indicates that a child may be at risk of harm, then it “will be conveyed to the extent necessary to ensure that the policies and procedures herein expressed shall be properly followed so as to safeguard children.” In the 2018 policy at para 5, it says that the elders will be told to report the matter if the child is still at risk of abuse. It seems highly likely that E was still at risk of abuse up to July 2019, yet the elders did not report the allegations.
- The stance that Mr Achonu has taken in this case, namely that the material will only be disclosed when the individual consents, is not reflected in either of the policy documents and he could give me no support for that approach.
- There does appear to be a strong suspicion that the Congregation’s own published guidance, both 2013 and 2018 was not followed, not just by A and B, but also by more senior figures in the Congregation. From a child safeguarding viewpoint this is deeply troubling, not least because the policy documents are ones which seem to be produced for public consumption but not to be effective to protect children.
- To the degree it is argued that although there might have been a requirement under the policy to report the allegations earlier, that does not mean that the information should now be disclosed, I reject that suggestion. The information held by the Congregation has the potential to be highly relevant both for the future protection and wellbeing of E and F, but also of other children. The information is likely relevant to three key questions for the Court – whether the threshold findings of fact in respect of the Father are made out; whether the Mother failed to protect E; and what future risk the Father poses to E if she lives with her Mother. It is also potentially highly relevant to whether the Father poses a risk to other children. This is a situation which is concerned with future child protection, and not simply past criminality, it therefore falls on the other side of the line applying the approach in R v H at .
- Fourthly, Mr Achonu accepted that whether the duty of religious confidentiality is examined through the common law or article 9 it is not an absolute duty. This is clear from the caselaw, R v H, R v Hay and the words of article 9(2). Respect for A and B’s religious beliefs is given by article 9(1), but that is qualified by article 9(2) including in the interests of public safety, the protection of health and morals, and the protection of the rights and freedom of others. It could not be more obvious that a freedom to manifest ones religious beliefs must give way to the need to protect a child from sexual abuse. That balance is to some degree reflected in the two policy documents, but has not been reflected in A and B’s approach to this case. The evidence points inexorably to A and B having protected their and the Father’s religious beliefs at the expense of the protection of the child.
- Fifthly, it therefore follows that the witness summons and the requirement for full statements from A and B, together with the documents sought are a proportionate interference in A and B’s right to manifest their religion. The interference in their religious rights is in my view relatively slight, given the terms of the two policy documents and the fact that the information does not appear to have been given in a confession or in any real sense as spiritual counselling. The other side of the proportionality balance is that the need for the protection of E and F, as well as other children is a highly weighty if not overriding factor.