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By the Grace of God

What’s the difference between confidentiality and secrecy? That is the question that lies at the heart of the new film by François Ozon, By the Grace of God. In the film, Ozon retells the horrific story of Fr Bernard Preynat, a Catholic priest in Lyon who, not only abused dozens of children in his care, but was allowed to continue even when his superiors were alerted to what was going on. The title comes from a comment made by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the Archbishop of Lyon. In discussing some of the historic cases of child abuse, he said: ‘By the grace of God most of those cases are now out of date.’ Apart from anything else, I think most would find that statement a pretty peculiar take on grace.

All Churches, along with many other institutions, have been confronted with the need to distinguish between confidentiality and secrecy. Whether it is child abuse in faith communities, corruption in corporations, or abuse of political power among world leaders, it would appear that most organisations are built for self-preservation with a bias towards secrecy.

I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person and will happily spend money to watch the latest blockbuster built on state secrecy. The most compelling, of course, are those based on true stories of cover-ups like Watergate or the Edward Snowden Affair. Like most of the audience, I suspect, these stories do not fuel our delusions about a ‘Big Brother’ State or ‘Big Data’ Corporations out to get us. But they do remind us that a secret attitude to knowledge is always a dangerous approach.

So what is the difference between confidentiality and secrecy? Confidentiality understands that knowledge builds trust (confidence) and so tends towards openness as its default position. Secrecy uses knowledge as power in order to create ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, clear distinctions between those in the know and the rest. It therefore seeks to limit transparency and the flow of knowledge.

For many people, the only context in which they think about the Church and confidentiality is the confessional. Films life By the Grace of God show how the confessional has fallen into disrepute. It has been shown to be a way to reinforce power over the vulnerable by providing a blanket of secrecy to keep things hidden rather than being a way to bring things into the light. Sadly, too many good people in all the Churches thought they were doing the right thing in keeping quiet when, in fact, they were colluding in the abuse of children.

In the last few months, most organisations have been wrestling with four letters: GDPR, the EU’s latest General Data Protection Regulations. This is just one attempt to ensure that individuals can have some control over their information and to limit the overreach of corporations and governments. Because knowledge is power and the control of information is an exercise in power, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Whilst you won’t find many confession boxes in Methodist churches, we still honour the principle of confidentiality when it comes to pastoral conversation. We also endorse the principle of transparency in our policy document, With Integrity and Skill:

“There are contexts within Methodism when information needs to be passed on that is to do with a person’s standing in relation to the Church rather than their need for supportive care …. Best practice … requires that the person concerned should see any information about himself or herself. Forms for reporting to vocational and similar committees have space for comments by the person being reported on, so they are able to contradict or add to what is contained within the report. Groups discussing the status of an individual need to be reminded of the confidential nature of their business.”

In practice, this means an institutional reorientation towards openness and disclosure. Instead of asking, ‘Why should this information be shared?’, we must learn to ask, ‘What prevents us from sharing?’ and the bar must be set higher. The key to knowing whether information is being treated confidentially or secretly is to ask who benefits most from non-disclosure. This means an acknowledgement that there are always more than two parties to every conversation. Along with the pastor/committee and the individual, there also sits the wider community, including the local congregation, the Church as a whole and any potential or actual victims. The relationship within which conversations are held is therefore not a closed one, but one that involves connections with many others. Whether we like it or not, pastoral work does not, and cannot, take place in a vacuum.

A good rule for the handling of information in the Church (and elsewhere) is how it affects the most vulnerable and least powerful in the matrix of relationships involved. Setting this as the core criterion for any information sharing or withholding ensures that power dynamics are properly identified and acknowledged. It also moves the focus away from processes and places it rightly on relationships. And it reminds all involved that their vocation is not simply the minimising of harm, but the maximising of life.

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