The Church of England has said that unauthorised disclosures from disciplinary tribunals involving priests could result in a prosecution for contempt of court.
One campaigner has warned that the addition of new confidentiality guidelines to the CofE’s rule book could “silence victims of abuse”.
However, the CofE said that the rules should not limit the existing ability of media to report disciplinary proceedings.
The Clergy Discipline Commission’s Code of Practice, which is intended as guidance to legal proceedings under the Clergy Discipline Measure and is not legally binding itself, was updated earlier this year following approval by the Synod.
It added paragraphs stating that “all matters should be kept strictly private and confidential”.
“This includes written documents and material which, save for legal representatives, should not be shared with third parties,” it said. “In particular, individuals (regardless whether or not they are a party) should refrain from making statements, posts, comments or similar on social media, websites, print media or other public fora which in any way reference the detail of the allegation, the individuals involved, or give an opinion as to the merits or otherwise of the alleged misconduct.
“Where an allegation has been referred for determination before a tribunal or court, the chair may certify that an act or omission, in connection with the proceedings or an order, committed by any person is a contempt and refer the matter to the High Court.”
Gavin Drake is the widower of Ealing vicarage rape victim Jill Saward who now continues her work campaigning around how rape and sexual assault victims are treated by the UK legal system. Jill Saward was attacked during a burglary and coverage of her case led to a tightening up of the law to better protect sexual assault complainants.
Drake said: “The new paragraphs have the effect of silencing victims of abuse. Many will be frightened and feel excluded by the procedures. To be warned that they risk being sent to the High Court on a charge of contempt for speaking out about their experiences is an appalling way to treat victims and survivors of abuse.
“It may also impact the right of journalists to report on clergy disciplinary cases, as church press officers will be able to respond to enquiries by referring to the code and warning them that they may be sent to the High Court for contempt if they report anything.”
However, the CofE has denied the new warnings were designed to do this, with a spokesperson saying they were intended to “underline the expectation of confidentiality in clergy discipline cases, while they are ongoing, given the sensitive nature of many complaints.
“The updates are not intended to ‘silence victims’ nor to prevent them from speaking out but, on the contrary, to protect survivors and others involved in the process and to ensure that proper process is not prejudiced by undue external influences.
“Nor are they aimed at the media and are not intended to limit the ability of the media to report proceedings under the Clergy Discipline Measure.
“They are simply a reminder to those with privileged access to confidential material in disciplinary cases of the expectation of confidentiality on them.
“This followed concerns brought to the Commission about a number of recent instances in which material was shared on social media which could potentially lead to the identification of complainants, causing significant distress and upset for those concerned.
“There is also a concern that in some cases selective posting of aspects of cases could prejudice the outcome of those cases which proceed to a tribunal.”
The Clergy Discipline Commission is aware of the concerns raised by Drake in a blog and will examine them and respond to him “in due course”, the spokesperson added.