top of page

Ask Dear Old Dad: Clergy Mandated Reporters?

Dear Dear Old Dad (or shall I call you DOD),

I have a two-part question for you. First, have you ever been in a situation where someone confessed a sin that was, for lack of a better word, something extreme like murder or physical abuse? And if so, how did you respond? Did you keep it confidential? (Or, if this is something others have experienced and not you, my real question is: What are guidelines for priests in how to respond?)


Karen Streeter


Dear Karen,

The Confession by Giuseppe Molteni (1800-1867)

Thank you (I think) for opening this can of worms.

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Alexander Pope, 1711 CE

During my time “under the purple stole” I once heard an admission of child sexual abuse. This was at a time that California law had not clarified clergy as mandated reporters. I counseled the penitent that while God through Jesus forgives us all, this behavior was not to be tolerated. Continuing, I emphasized that should I ever be made aware of his ongoing and unsupervised contact with children, I would make a report to the authorities. With boundaries clarified, he withdrew from participating in that congregation.

My understanding at this present time is that what is shared in a formal, sacramental confession is morally and legally confidential, EXCEPT in cases involving the abuse of children.

Our Episcopal Church resurrected formal sacramental confession in the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer. Because of abuses in the medieval Catholic Church, confession was eliminated in the sixteenth century by the English reformers, and the more Protestant “General Confession” was substituted.

“When the penitent has confessed all serious sins troubling the conscience and has given evidence of due contrition, the priest gives such counsel and encouragement as are needed and pronounces the absolution. The content of a confession is not normally a matter of subsequent

discussion. The secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for the confessor and must under no circumstances be broken.”

Concerning the Rite: Reconciliation of a Penitent, 1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 446

When entering into the space and time of a formal, “auricular” confession, I advise the penitent that whatever is said in the confession remains absolutely confidential, with the child abuse exception. If further conversation is desired when the priest is not “under the purple stole,” it must be initiated by the penitent.

Hope this helps,

Dear Old Dad (DOD)

Do you have a burning question about church, Episcopal/Anglican traditions, theology, and so on? In our weekly feature "Ask Dear Old Dad," after the classic "Dear Abby" format, the Rev. Reese Riley, COS Senior Adjunct Clergy, will tackle your questions with his signature wisdom and charm. And by the way, there are no dumb questions! You may request to be anonymous, or you may have your name published. Your questions will inspire the conversation! Submit your question to Hannah at


bottom of page