The Joanna Yeates trial and the Salvation Army chaplain who heard a confession of murder

David and Theresa Yeates laying flowers at Longwood Lane, Failand, where their daughter Joanna's body was found Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire)

There are about 500 murders a year in this country, which is of course 500 too many – but only a few of them get large-scale media coverage. One such, now come to trial, is the sad case of Joanna Yeates, the details of which are very well known.

Two things strike me in this matter. The first is that it would be far better for all of us, but particularly for Miss Yeates’s family, if certain parts of the trial were held in camera. It is distressing to hear the details of how she was murdered; distressing for us – but for her parents well-night unendurable, I would think. Of course the jury have to hear these details, as they are evidence, but do the rest of us have to know? Is there a legitimate public interest? I do not think so.

The second matter is this, covered by this report in the Daily Telegraph:

While [Tabak] was being held in prison on remand, he admitted for the first time that he had strangled his next-door neighbour, Bristol Crown Court heard.

On Feb 8 he spoke to Peter Brotherton, a voluntary chaplain with the Salvation Army, said the prosecutor, Nigel Lickley QC.

Tabak told him: “I’m going to tell you something that will shock you … I’m going to plead guilty’ … The chaplain asked him “what for?” and Tabak replied: “For the crime that I have done.” When he was asked if he meant “the young lady in Bristol” he said “yes” and the chaplain asked him: “Are you sorry?” Mr Lickley told the court: “He said he was.”

What this means is that Tabak had a conversation with a prison chaplain, and this conversation is now being used as evidence against him in court. Whether the evidence given by the prison chaplain proves to be important or not, time will tell, but I am surprised, to say the least, that the prison chaplain has volunteered to give evidence against Tabak, if that is indeed the case.

This brings to mind important considerations for us Catholics. What is told a priest under the seal of Confession can never be disclosed without the penitent’s permission. This means that whenever we go to Confession, we can be quite sure that what we say is confidential. I have never heard of a priest who broke the seal of Confession; there has been at least one priest who died rather than break the seal – the famous St John of Nepomuk, who was hurled off Charles Bridge in Prague by the King of Bohemia because he refused to tell the King the secrets of the Queen’s confession. And quite right too. Catholics have an absolute right to know that their Confessions will never be divulged to anyone.

But quite apart from the seal that protects the confessional secret, there is the ordinary professional confidentiality that binds priests, lawyers, doctors and others. If you tell a priest something that you wish to be treated as confidential, then the priest is bound to keep that to himself. I do not wish to make any judgment about the chaplain to whom Tabak spoke, as I do not know the full facts of the case, but, if I were a prison chaplain, I would never divulge what went on in private conversations between me and the prisoners. If I did so, the prisoners, I imagine, would not talk to me.

Or am I wrong about this?