Confidentiality: drawing the circle

by Judy Harrow

Counseling is another "art of changing consciousness in accordance with will," like magic in many ways. Counselors help our clients change their consciousness and their lives by offering them a "safe space," a time set apart in which they can examine their lives and reconsider their choices. The change may begin with consciousness, but it never stops there. When consciousness changes, behavior changes, and different behavior calls forth different responses. So changing my consciousness carries the possibility of changing any aspect of my life.

A coven Circle is another kind of safe space, of set-apart time, in which we can work toward many kinds of change: healing, and job magic, and closer conscious contact with the Ancient Ones. The style of the work may be very different, but both the goals and many of the underlying processes are much the same. Our work as counselors is consistent and mutually reinforcing with our work as priest/esses.

Willed change can come hard. Old hurts and old habits block the way. The work may involve facing painful memories, long buried. It may require the sacrifice of major components of the client's self image, and significant behavioral risk-taking. Those who experiment with themselves are vulnerable. They need privacy, especially in a community as small as ours. Pagans live in a fishbowl. Few would risk such deep self-exploration if their work seems likely to become common gossip. So a counseling session is like a cast Circle: whatever is said or done within should normally not be discussed with anyone who was not present. Safe space is private space.

By tradition, Witches keep secrets. Our commitment to silence arose as a response to persecution, an effort to protect each other and our Craft from harm, an implementation of the Wiccan Rede. Confidentiality is still a survival issue in some places, and part of our community's social contract everywhere. We are trained to it, bone deep. And we are vowed to it, bound to keep our secrets by strong spells voluntarily and co-operatively worked between initiate and initiator.

Nothing in nature is so very pure. Although confidentiality is a way of life for us, we need to understand both the practical risks and the ethical limits. Sometimes life presents us with hard and tragic choices.

The risks are legal. We'd like to think that as priest/esses, as clergy, our communications with those who seek our aid are legally protected, "privileged" communication. We'd like to believe that our religious status safeguards us, at least, from the threat of jail. It's not that simple.

In 1994, the members of Iron Oak Coven in Florida faced a different freedom of religion issue. They fought and won their case - yes - but had to take a second mortgage on their house to pay their lawyer. What about those of us who have no house to mortgage? Our legal rights are only made real when we have the resources and the determination to defend them.

Beyond that, the legal right of any clergy to remain silent varies from state to state, and with the type of case. Many states, for example, mandate the reporting of child abuse. In 1984, also in Florida, a fundamentalist Christian minister, Rev. John Mellish, counseled a child abuser in his congregation. The man subsequently confessed, pled guilty, and still the court demanded the pastor's testimony. Pastor Mellish refused on principle, and went to jail for contempt of court, setting an honorable example for all clergy of all religions. Understand, where the law denies the privilege of confidential communication to all clergy, a Witch cannot claim religious discrimination.

Each of us needs to research what the law actually is where we live, in order to assess our risks and protect ourselves as best we can. No protection is perfect. Living by our values is not always comfortable or profitable or even safe, but it is the meaning of the word "religion."

The risks are legal and practical, but the limits are ethical. There are a very few, heartbreaking circumstances in which the Wiccan Rede itself, the heartspring of our religion, might require us to break silence.

The secular counseling profession has its own strong tradition of confidentiality. But professional counselors acknowledge clear limits to that confidentiality, and good reasons for those limits. Witches can learn from this example. In the early '70's, Tatiana Tarasoff was a student at the University of California. Another student, obsessed with thoughts of murdering her, sought help at the University counseling center. The counselor kept silence. Tatiana, unwarned, was later murdered. Her parents won a wrongful death suit. The California Supreme Court upheld the decision on appeal (Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, 1976) and so established a legal "duty to warn" in situations of serious danger to self or others.

Very rarely, a crisis may arise which is truly beyond our ability to handle within the community. At such times, secular law commands us to get whatever outside help is needed: a doctor, a fire-fighter, a cop. Silence then could leave us legally liable, but that alone is not a good enough reason to break oath.

Secular law does not own my conscience. I'd far rather be in trouble with the courts than with the Crone. But where there truly is imminent danger of serious harm -- then and only then -- I believe that the Rede supersedes the oath. Silence is merely one application of the Rede. Harmlessness, not silence, is the core ethic of the Witch.

And how shall we know when the potential for harm is imminent and serious enough? Here's a guideline: until and unless you are prepared to look the Crone in the eye, tell Her "yes, I broke my oath, and here's why," and accept Her judgment, keep silent.

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  • NOTE: this essay was originally published in the Covenant of the Goddess Newsletter (Lunasa, 1995). It was excerpted and adapted from a far longer essay on Wiccan secrecy issues which was published in Volume 4 of the Llewellyn "Witchcraft Today" anthology series.

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    Contents of this page are copyright © 1995, 1999, 2001 by Judy Harrow.