The Confessional & Confidentiality

by The Rev. Dr. Jerry F. Smith, S.T.D., WPCA President

Washington Pastoral Counselors Association’s (WPCA) motto is, “With you in faith, hope, and love.” So, how does that apply when you are trying to serve your clients and make a living?

One of the geniuses about pastoral counseling is its willingness to stand with you while you embrace some difficult paradoxes. So, where do you look for support in navigating the nearly impossible dilemmas raised by honoring the confidentiality of the people you see?

On one hand, pastoral counselors draw from a most ancient, sacred, and spiritual wellspring; practices and traditions go back to pre-Christian, shamanic origins. On the other, each of us intimately touches all aspects of this current age. We face baffling questions posed by massive internet exposure and the agonizing quandaries of managed care.

Most pastoral counselors have a choice regarding the confidentiality of conversations that take place within the counseling space. Of course, state, federal, and business (i.e., the insurance indus- try) exert influence on just how much can remain secret, and who may breach that privacy boundary. Government often asserts that the needs of the many (e.g., homeland security) or the vulnerable (e.g., at risk children and adults) trump client confidentiality. Third- party insurers/payees also require certain private details of therapeutic conversations be disclosed. Many pastoral counselors regularly face the gut- wrenching balancing act of seeking to honor client communications while saying just enough to satisfy other interested parties.

Other pastoral counselors adhere to some version of the doctrine of the seal of the confessional. As early as 1115 CE the Roman Catholic Church declared the seal of the confessional as law stat- ing, “Let the priest who dares to make known the sins of his penitent be de- posed”, and “be made a life-long, ignominious wanderer.” While this language seems overly dramatic and harsh for the twenty-first century, the principle of never revealing any part of a confession stands to this day.

Even Washington State law recognizes that any person who is designated as a confessor, by her/his religious organization is exempt from disclosing any- thing shared in that confessional moment.

WPCA recognizes that our sisters and brothers of high integrity, good will, and compassionate souls choose different paths with regard to client confidentiality. Many who choose to collaborate with the State and managed care entities practice the style of pastoral counseling without the “confessor” title. In doing so, they re- port to appropriate governmental agencies to protect the vulnerable in danger of harm, and some work with insurance companies to supplement their income. These pastoral counselors offer the graces of the practice without an official religious mandate.

Those who operate under the umbrella of a religious body claim the rights and exemptions of the confessor to reveal nothing they hear. They contend that they protect the vulnerable by encouraging those who do harm to atone for harmful deeds and make amends to their victims. Sometimes this includes supporting and/or requiring the offender in turning themselves in to the authorities.

I suggest the following:

  • We honor colleagues’ choices regarding how they employ confidentiality and the confessional as their circumstances allow.
  • We affirm and support the view- points of other pastoral counsel- ors regarding how they keep secrets and make their money.
  • We open respectful dialogue about confidentiality and the confessional to advance our under- standings.

I wonder if WPCA might sponsor a professional workshop (6 CEUs) to dialogue more on the subjects of confidentiality and the confessional, and of course, enjoy a fine lunch. With warmest blessings, Jerry