THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840
SIR DAVID AMESS, MP FOR SOUTHEND WEST
HE LAID DOWN HIS
People who associate religion with sanctimonious self-righteousness need to take on board the case of the late Sir David Amess, who was the very opposite. The many tributes paid to him since he was stabbed to death doing his constituency duties last Friday all refer to his warmth and kindliness – even to an air of innocent mischief – that the more perceptive observers have linked to his deep Catholic faith. He epitomised the truth that it is impossible to hate the people you pray for. His life was an essay in what Christian joy really looks like: the pleasure of being alive, the enjoyment of the company of others and the satisfaction of doing good works.
The idea of “virtue” went out of fashion long ago, though “character”, to which it is closely related, is still in currency. But the exercise of virtue in the formation of character is one of the primary goals of Catholic education, crucial in turning Amess into the sort of person he was: an open-minded, humble and caring listener. One the most significant places he listened was in his weekly constituency surgeries. People on low income came there to tell him they were cold at home at night in winter. He not only listened; he acted. His driving force was conscience rather than dogma, though he understood the connection between them in terms of the infinite worth of every human being – he was resolutely pro-life. As an MP, he was entitled to bring forward Private Members’ bills, and so he promoted and campaigned for the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill, which became law in 2000. Likewise, a constituent told him of her suffering from the neglected disease of endometriosis, and he campaigned on that too, one of several good causes indebted to his interest and enthusiasm.
This intimacy between politicians and constituents, outside party politics, is a distinctive feature of representative democracy in Britain. It inserts a political figure with status and influence between the individual citizen and the state; a figure usually available in person, moreover, once a week in a readily accessible local meeting place. Yet this creates a dangerous vulnerability, especially when there are those in society at war with its core values. Amess was attacked while meeting members of the public during his weekly constituency surgery. Every MP would have felt a chill of horror on hearing the news: Sir David Amess today, they thought; it could be me tomorrow.
But what was remarkable was that virtually none of them questioned the principle of holding weekly constituency surgeries. They recognised the extreme difficulty of making them safe. That was, they agreed, no reason to impede the fundamental principle that MPs need and want regular face-to-face contact with those they represent. This is a right of citizenship from which no one should be excluded. MPs deal with a lot of casework, from quarrels between neighbours to asylum seekers lost in the labyrinth of Home Office bureaucracy. Much of it is both routine and essential.
There is a Catholic term for what happened to Sir David Amess: martyrdom. Doing his duty while knowing the risks, he laid down his life for others.
THE SEAL OF THE
AT A PRICE
Like the Catholic Church in Australia, the Church in France is embroiled in a ChurchState conflict over the seal of the confessional. The same could easily happen in the United Kingdom. If the law imposes a legal duty to report a reasonable suspicion of child abuse to the authorities, should disclosure in the course of the rite of confession be exempt? The presumption is that priests hearing a confession may have grounds for believing that a person is abusing children. Not to report that abuse is in effect to permit it to continue.
If only it were that simple. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in Britain has produced numerous reports, uniformly devastating, where the issue of mandatory reporting has been raised on behalf of survivors. The inquiry has postponed dealing with the issue until its final report due next year. Yet very few priests, appearing before IICSA as witnesses, had come across a case where this issue arose.
There are good reasons why it is so rare. A paedophile may well not regard the abuse as sinful – their capacity for self-delusion is notorious. If they did know it was sinful, they may well wish to persist in their sin, in which case why confess it? In any event the confessor may not know who the penitent person is, as the confession is conducted anonymously behind a screen. Furthermore, if abusers knew a potential confessor was legally bound to report abuse, and intended to set aside the seal of the confessional to do so, they might as well report themselves to the local police directly. And such a mandatory reporting law would give considerable scope for anti-Catholic mischief-making, especially as a priest-confessor would be unable to defend himself without breaking the seal.
These are practical difficulties. The theological one, that confession is a private conversation with God in which the confessor is merely the channel, is not likely to cut much ice with secular law-makers. The seal of the confessional is binding under Catholic canon law without exception, but legislators argue that church law cannot be set above state law. The Church should not expect it to be. A special law exempting Catholic clergy from laws applicable to everyone else would be a terrible idea. But there is a higher law than either of them.
Conscience is the supreme law and stands above the laws of both Church and State. Obviously, following one’s conscience can be costly. If one has given one’s word that a certain disclosure is confidential under all circumstances, unconditionally, one may have to pay a price if the authorities demand that that confidence is broken. Indeed, such a case has happened in Britain already, involving an investigative journalist. Similarly a priest may have no choice but to accept a prison sentence rather than to break the seal. The same could apply to a lawyer, a psychiatrist or indeed a family doctor.
The Church has a moral obligation meanwhile to do everything in its power, short of abrogating the seal, to bring sex abusers to justice. Passing laws specifically designed to target the seal, however, looks more like an act designed to punish the Catholic Church for past failures than a useful contribution to the prevention of abuse in the future.
2 | THE TABLET | 23 OCTOBER 2021