November 26, 2014

Of Confidence and Confidentiality

Issues of disclosure have been much in the news lately. From the scandals plaguing the Roman Church to the debates about the seal of the confessional in the Church of England, to the concerns about closed meetings of Executive Council, and unpublished bylaws at the General Seminary, there appears to be a good deal of confusion about what things, and when and how and to what extent, ought to be kept under wraps.

One of the common reasons advanced for confidentiality concerns “personnel matters.” But when the personnel matter under discussion is misconduct — in some cases to a criminal level — then confidentiality that allows the guilty employee to find another job in a similar setting amounts to conspiracy, and in the long run serves no one well. Even if it did, that is a road down which no one should want to tread.

Another reason for confidentiality is that being allowed to reveal incriminating information about oneself without fear of it going any farther is essential to the ministry of reconciliation in the confessional. The argument here is that few would avail themselves of this ministry without the assurance that what is said will not be held against them. I can understand the pastoral practical side of this, but have been unable to find any dogmatic rationale that supports the notion, particularly given the dominical teaching on the dangers of hypocrisy: that what is said in secret will be made known at length (Luke 12:1-3). The apocalypse is a warning that in the end nothing is covered up that will not be revealed.

Obviously some things do deserve the protection of confidentiality — which at the level of the confessional applies to the act of confession as well as its content. But some things, by their nature, demand public notice. Among these are minutes of meetings, actions taken by boards of directors, and changes made to bylaws. This is particularly the case where the decisions are taken in the name of some larger entity than just those immediately present in the room. Any action that touches a wider constituency ought to be communicated to that constituency.

Above all it is important to distinguish between confidentiality and secrecy. For instance, doctor / patient and attorney / client confidentiality is well understood not to prevent a doctor or lawyer from discussing a case study — with the name of the patient or client concealed.

To apply this to some of the current controversies about publication of actions of church bodies, I have suggested that in part the Chatham House Rule would make good sense in such situations. Under this rule, the subject matter of a closed meeting, and comments made in it, can be shared, but the identity of the speaker and the speaker’s affiliation are not to be revealed. This allows for open discussion of the subject matter without endangering anyone for expressing an opinion that might be controversial.

But in the end, I have no confidence in confidentiality when it amounts to selective secrecy.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


June Butler said...

Wise words, my dear friend.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, June. They've been rolling around in my head for a couple of weeks.