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The Joanna Yeates trial and the Salvation Army chaplain who heard a confession of murder

The details of the case have been distressing: surely the jury can hear these in private?

By on Wednesday, 12 October 2011

David and Theresa Yeates laying flowers at Longwood Lane, Failand, where their daughter Joanna's body was found Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire)

David and Theresa Yeates laying flowers at Longwood Lane, Failand, where their daughter Joanna's body was found Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire)

There are about 500 murders a year in this country, which is of course 500 too many – but only a few of them get large-scale media coverage. One such, now come to trial, is the sad case of Joanna Yeates, the details of which are very well known.

Two things strike me in this matter. The first is that it would be far better for all of us, but particularly for Miss Yeates’s family, if certain parts of the trial were held in camera. It is distressing to hear the details of how she was murdered; distressing for us – but for her parents well-night unendurable, I would think. Of course the jury have to hear these details, as they are evidence, but do the rest of us have to know? Is there a legitimate public interest? I do not think so.

The second matter is this, covered by this report in the Daily Telegraph:

While [Tabak] was being held in prison on remand, he admitted for the first time that he had strangled his next-door neighbour, Bristol Crown Court heard.

On Feb 8 he spoke to Peter Brotherton, a voluntary chaplain with the Salvation Army, said the prosecutor, Nigel Lickley QC.

Tabak told him: “I’m going to tell you something that will shock you … I’m going to plead guilty’ … The chaplain asked him “what for?” and Tabak replied: “For the crime that I have done.” When he was asked if he meant “the young lady in Bristol” he said “yes” and the chaplain asked him: “Are you sorry?” Mr Lickley told the court: “He said he was.”

What this means is that Tabak had a conversation with a prison chaplain, and this conversation is now being used as evidence against him in court. Whether the evidence given by the prison chaplain proves to be important or not, time will tell, but I am surprised, to say the least, that the prison chaplain has volunteered to give evidence against Tabak, if that is indeed the case.

This brings to mind important considerations for us Catholics. What is told a priest under the seal of Confession can never be disclosed without the penitent’s permission. This means that whenever we go to Confession, we can be quite sure that what we say is confidential. I have never heard of a priest who broke the seal of Confession; there has been at least one priest who died rather than break the seal – the famous St John of Nepomuk, who was hurled off Charles Bridge in Prague by the King of Bohemia because he refused to tell the King the secrets of the Queen’s confession. And quite right too. Catholics have an absolute right to know that their Confessions will never be divulged to anyone.

But quite apart from the seal that protects the confessional secret, there is the ordinary professional confidentiality that binds priests, lawyers, doctors and others. If you tell a priest something that you wish to be treated as confidential, then the priest is bound to keep that to himself. I do not wish to make any judgment about the chaplain to whom Tabak spoke, as I do not know the full facts of the case, but, if I were a prison chaplain, I would never divulge what went on in private conversations between me and the prisoners. If I did so, the prisoners, I imagine, would not talk to me.

Or am I wrong about this?

  • Anonymous

    When Tabak went to HMP Bristol he will have been given access to the Prison Regime Information.

    This includes the line “The Chaplaincy works as part of the prison and cannot, therefore, guarantee confidentiality (they can explain this to you in detail). Prisoners can contact the Chaplaincy in person or by Application.”

  • Catholicdavid

    Speaking as a Catholic priest who is also a prison Chaplain, I would suggest that while the seal of Confession is inviolable for Catholic Chaplains, many other Chaplains from other Denominations and Faiths would have a different understanding. But then that would be true outside of prison as well.

  • ConfusedofChi


  • David Devinish

    As the case is ongoing is it wise or ethical to comment, considering the law on contempt of court

  • UKExPatLA

    Perhaps it would have been appropriate for the Salvation Army chaplain to state that, unlike a Catholic priest, he is not required to keep his conversation confidential, however, that being said, a man who admits to the brutal murder of an innocent young woman deserves to face the full weight of the law for his act. 

  • Anonymous

    Father, if a prisoner told you, clearly outside the sacrament of confession, that he was guilty of murder , would you not feel duty bound to inform the authorities?

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    This posting has made no comment on the case as such.

  • Ametteley

    If a Catholic priest were to hear a sacramental confession, of course he must keep silence. I doubt be has such an obligation over a ‘confession’ made in the course of a conversation, though the person disclosing information may not realise this, especially if he is not Catholic himself, and think that any secret told to a Catholic priest will be kept. The priest, and indeed,any chaplain from another denomination, needs to make this clear from the start if be feels disclosures might be made.

  • brobern

    As I understand it the “seal of confession” is binding on the confessor as follows:
    1.   he may not impart by written or spoken word anything he has heard in confession
    2    he may not initiate any action by which a third party may deduce what he, the priest, has heard in confession
    3.   he may not markedly change his customs, habits or routine in such a way that a third party may deduce what has been said in confession.
    The “seal” is quite far reaching.
    However, no such embargo is incumbent on the penitent who is completely at liberty to disclose to others ALL what has passed between him/her and the confessor.
    It has been known that a priest, in charge of an organisation, hearing complaint about an individual by a third party has said “we had better put this into confession”.    This is a political move.    To bring a case against the individual the priest can keep out of the subsequent enquiry and the third party can then ‘hide’ behind a misunderstanding of the “seal of confession”.

  • Parasum

    When the alternative to silence on the part of the confessor is that the person confessing continues to be free to re-offend in a serious matter (one thinks here of confessions of treason, murder, forgery, kidnap, and other crimes against the person and against the peace and safety of the state), it seems that a precaution against unethical behaviour has been stretched so far as to become unethical itself – a not uncommon phenomenon in ethics. McGuinness & Adams & other such criminals do not deserve the protection they can count on, *if* ever they confessed any of their crimes, nor do other such criminals. The Church’s law fails to distinguish sinners from criminals, and protects the latter out of compassion for the former.