UK Defense minister apologizes for chaplains ‘outing’ gay servicemen

UK Defense minister apologizes for chaplains ‘outing’ gay servicemen

Johnny Mercer MP, Minister for Defense. Credit: House of Commons, CC by 3.0.
Johnny Mercer MP, Minister for Defense. Credit: House of Commons, CC by 3.0.

.- U.K. Minister of Defense Johnny Mercer has issued an apology to lesbian, gay, and bisexual servicemembers who were reportedly outed by military chaplains. He issued the apology at an event recognizing the anniversary of the repeal of the United Kingdom’s ban on homosexual members of the military.

“Our policy regarding LGB members in the military was unacceptable then, and as a defense minister, I personally apologize for those experiences,” said Mercer at an event held Jan. 9 and again in a statement to CNA Jan. 14. 

“Pastoral encounters between service chaplains and personnel should be strictly confidential.”

LGBT campaigners have alleged that over a period of years Catholic military chaplains, as well as Church of England chaplains, regularly violated the seal of confession and informed military superiors of the identities of lesbian, gay, or bisexual members of the military. These servicemembers were then discharged as homosexuality was not permitted in the military until January 2000. 

LGBT activist Edmund Hall, a former Royal Navy sub-lieutenant, claims that he has spoken to over 100 self-identified lesbian, gay, and bisexual members of the military who were dismissed due to their sexuality. 

Hall told The Sunday Times Jan. 12 that while these former servicemembers “were dismissed in all sorts of circumstances,” confessing homosexual behavior to chaplains “was certainly one of those circumstances.”

Elaine Chambers, who co-founded a group advocating for the inclusion of homosexual men and women in the military, told The Sunday Times saying that it was “absolutely shocking” that priests “used to break the rules of the confessional.”

“[Our members] told somebody, thinking, ‘I am just getting it off my chest,’ and the next thing you know, that has led to the military police knocking on your door and that could only have come from the padres,” she said.

Breaking the sacramental seal of confession is a grave crime in the Catholic Church, and incurs a latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication. Priests are expected to keep the secrets of their penitents confidential, even if the penitent confesses to a serious crime or treason. 

Patrick Lyster-Todd, another "gay rights" activist, told The Sunday Times that a letter was allegedly sent by Cardinal Basil Hume, then Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, to military chaplains in 1994. This letter allegedly emphasized that the seal of confession was sacrosanct and could not be violated.

Lyster-Todd claimed that once this letter was written, the outings stopped.

A secretary for the Catholic Bishopric of the Armed Forces for the U.K. told CNA Jan. 14 that it could not comment on that claim, because officials are checking archives in an attempt to locate any such letter, and then confirm what specifically was written, and to whom it was addressed.

“Knowledge of the information is for the priest, the penitent and God,” Bishop Paul Mason of the Armed Forces said to The Sunday Times.

“Information gained in the context of sacramental confession may not be used in any other forum.”

CNA contacted the Archdiocese of Westminster and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales for comment on the allegations of violation of the seal, and to confirm the alleged letter from Cardinal Hume, but has not yet received a response.

Hall stated that the Ministry of Defense instructed the chaplains to put military efficiency above their spiritual duties. 

“Would you expect a chaplain to withhold the fact that someone was giving away their location to a Russian submarine? At the time, the [Ministry of Defense’]s view was that homosexuality was in the same category--that it would damage the efficacy of the units,” he told The Times.

While Hall suggested that a priest would be obliged to report acts of espionage confessed to him, Church law admits no exception to the secrecy of the confessional.

In 2001, former FBI agent Robert Hanssen was arrested and pled guilty to 15 counts of espionage. Hanssen, a practicing Catholic, repeatedly confessed his crimes to a priest, who did not report what he did to the authorities. 

Conversations that occur outside of the context of a sacramental confession, even if they occur in the context of counseling or mentorship, do not fall under the seal of confession. If a servicemember went to a chaplain seeking advice and revealed, inadvertently or purposefully, a same-sex relationship, the chaplain would not be bound to keep that a secret as though it were made in confession. 

Despite focus on sacramental confession in the allegations of LGB activists, Hall’s comments to the press are actually ambiguous as to whether priests may, in fact, have violated the seal of confession. Some remarks from Hall suggest that the context of “confessions” may have been pastoral or other guidance, but not sacramental confession.

He said that chaplains were “welfare officers” who heard “issues of a highly personal nature” about a person's marriage, family, and faith life, but did not offer specific allegations concerning violations of the sacramental seal.

“What was more damaging was not any particular case where it may or may not have happened,” said Hall. “It was the fact that the threat of it happening removes the key pastoral support option for people going through the toughest time of their life. Because you knew you couldn’t talk to a chaplain, so who the hell could you talk to?”

Tags: Confession, LGBT, United Kingdom

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