Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 1060 - 1079)

TUESDAY 6 MARCH 2001 Afternoon sitting


  1060. Could I ask you, and it may be a difficult question for a variety of reasons, do you think because of the nature of serving in the armed forces, I do not know whether you can call it the drop-out rate of chaplains will be higher than it might be outside the armed forces? In other words, perhaps their faith is tested more in the armed forces than outside in an ordinary parish.
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) I would hesitate to make any judgment about faith. I think the pace of life that is required from an Army chaplain might fatigue some men and women more than being in the parishes, or in some parishes.

  1061. There is a question we have come across with armed forces' personnel about postings overseas. Because of the relative number of chaplains, are they more likely to have tours overseas and are they accompanied when they go? I obviously exclude Catholic priests from that. Would they go with their families?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) The department, like the Army in general, encourages accompanied service. When we issue posting orders they are in the main for 36 months, three years. Because we are a small corps, and if one or two people leave this has tremendous repercussions, you may find that that average drops to 30 months. There are others, of course, like tours in Cyprus and so on, where we deliberately limit them to two years. I do not think, given that the forces themselves tend to be overstretched, that the tours that obtain for my chaplains are much different from that of the rest of the army.

  Mr Randall: Thank you very much. I must apologise, I do have to leave but I have some duties myself to perform.

Mr Watts

  1062. The Committee has been looking at the role of under-18s in the Army and we have heard that there are particular problems with people who enter the armed forces who may not be mature enough to actually take on the role that they have decided to pursue. Can you give us your experience about the under-18s in the armed forces?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) I am sorry, I did not quite catch the question. I have served too long with guns.

  1063. We are talking about under-18s in the Army and your experience of working with under-18s. I am really asking whether you think that they are mature enough to join the Army at that age and whether you believe there are the support systems in the armed forces to cope with their needs?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) I have 32 chaplains working in Army Training Units, so the support they get from my chaplains is probably second to none. You are right, these are young people who are maturing but I do believe that overall they are given as much support as we can possibly expect from the Services and my own people to help them along that road. I myself was a chaplain to the Army Apprentice College in Harrogate and I found it a particularly interesting experience in so far as I had to reconnect with how young people were coping with moving into adult life. I think they were treated fairly. I think the discipline was sensible and related to the people of that particular age group. I have no criticisms in particular of the way in which we handle young people or the way that we help them to mature them and be ready for Service life.

  1064. In your experience they can cope with the position that they find themselves in?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) I think they can cope with the regime because the regime is deliberately framed in a way in which it is meaningful and helpful to the young people. I do not think it is oppressive.


  1065. Picking up from that, Chaplain-General, although not just in respect of under-18s, what role do Service chaplains play in military discipline? Do you find yourself in the position of trying to make sure, for instance, the commanding officer is aware of mitigating circumstances? Do you also find yourself either communicating directly with Service personnel's family or relatives, or perhaps communicating with whoever their local minister or priest may be? I am just thinking of some of my own experience as a constituency MP where you are contacted by anxious fathers, mothers, grandparents, about a young man or woman who is in the forces and they are concerned about what is happening, or what they have heard is happening, to them. I am just interested in seeing some of the different roles that yourself and Service chaplains play.
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) I think that is an interesting question because a Service chaplain, by the nature of his calling and vocation, has, shall we say, his work with the battalion and across the battalion a wide perspective in so far as he will go into the accommodation blocks of single men, he will go into Service quarters and, of course, he has to regularly go into the guard room where soldiers could be under sentence or detained, whatever. I think this gives you a perspective about the morale of the whole unit. During my time as a Service chaplain I have been telephoned on a number of occasions by a solider who is absent without leave. I have never asked him or her their address or anything else, that is nothing to do with me in that sense. I have always encouraged them to come back and give themselves up. Equally, if a soldier divulged to me in the guard room what I considered to be mitigating circumstances, the fact that he has told me in no way gives me a mandate to go and tell the commanding officer. I would, on occasion, say to the young man or woman concerned, "I think if this were known it might help your case". If he gave me permission to tell others that is quite a different matter. If he is giving me that as a priestly confidence, if you like, it has to stay with me. I think it is important that we are there to hear these matters and to reflect on them, and after thinking ourselves to go back and possibly recommend a course of action. It is then up to the individual to make a judgment on what he would expect me to do as the chaplain to the battalion. I cannot take that judgment away from him or her.

  1066. Thank you for that. Could I also turn the tables and ask, what support Service chaplains have? We have certainly gained the impression or understand that at times Service chaplains are away from their own families, relatives, friends and support systems for many, many months at a time. They can be placed in a position of dealing with some horrendous situations, and that came across to us very strongly in Kosovo, hearing about the Service chaplain's involvement in the bus bombing incident, and not only supporting our Service personnel but also supporting the Serbian families in the best way he could. It made me wonder who was there to support Service chaplains after what they witnessed and what they had seen. Are there any support mechanisms for Service chaplains themselves?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) I think you are making a very interesting point, the chaplain will not just soak up, if you like, a soldier coming back after witnessing a mass grave, where there had been horrific acts taking place, but, of course, he soaks that up from right across the unit. That is inevitably bound to have a toll upon him. What we tend to do is before chaplains go away on operations we get chaplains who have been there to talk to those who are about to go there, and in that sense prepare them. When they come back we bring them back again and let them tell their story. Yes, it can be very lonely and it can be very difficult. We have other training courses. I encourage all of my Assistant Chaplain-Generals to visit not only the chaplain but his family whilst they are away, so there is that point of contact. Equally, I also encourage all of my chaplains to go away, as far as possible, on a yearly retreat and to have a spiritual directive, if those terms are familiar with you, so that he himself can talk through his own problems or difficulties in dealing with what he has seen and heard.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

Mr Davies

  1067. I wonder if I can just take up the points put to you by our Chairman in earlier questions to you. I want to get absolutely clear in my mind what the rules are here, if in the course of a chaplain talking to a Service man or a Service woman that Service man or Service woman confesses an offence which may be a very serious offence what do you do about it?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) Absolutely nothing.

  1068. Even if the offence was murder you would keep it entirely to yourself?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) In law priestly confidences are, shall we say, accepted?

  1069. They are, indeed, in law. I am just trying to find out what happens in the military and whether that principle applies equally there?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) If an offence of murder was committed I would have to accept that I was told this as a priest in the traditional understanding of priestly confidence as it is, that it is just that. The only exception that I am aware of is the Childrens Act, where, I think, we are told if a child is at risk we are duty bound to share that. That is my understanding. I might be mistaken. The traditional understanding of a confession is that the seal is absolute.

  1070. Right. The purpose of the derogation for children is, presumably, to stop an offence being committed or being repeated, which we are looking at in the further. Let me ask you an equivalent question looking at the future, if somebody came to you and said that he was or had been given an order or expected that he might be given an order which he thought it would be immoral to carry out, what would you do in those circumstances?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) I would remind him that there is no defence of orders in law and, therefore, he had to take whatever moral stand he believed to be appropriate.

  1071. And take the consequences. Would you intervene yourself with the commanding officer concerned?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) If the soldier said, "Padre, I wish you to take this issue forward for me", I would do so.

  1072. If you felt the merits justified it.
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) If he gave me freedom to do so I would do so. The initiative must remain with the soldier.

  1073. To what extent has it been the practice, in your experience, in the Services for commanding officers or other senior officers to actually informally, no doubt, talk to the chaplains about morale in the ranks and about the concerns of the men or woman under their command, not, of course, asking for confidential information or, indeed, any information related to individuals, but simply as a way of getting a feedback as to what people are concerned about or feeling?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) He would be a pretty dull dog as a commanding officer if he did not say, "Padre, how is morale?" If you are dealing with something as general as that I think it would be appropriate to reply. If he started to dig round and say, "I think major so and so's company is in rag order, what do you think?" When I was at regimental duty if such a thing were put to me I would start to be very tentative in my replies.

  1074. I am beginning to get the feel of it, what you are saying is that it is general practice for commanding officers to ask the question, "Padre, what are people worried about, how is morale?"
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) I am saying that I have known such questions to be put, but how general it would be I do not know.

  1075. Do you think it would be good practice on the part of the Padre to give a helpful answer to that as long as it is couched in general terms and does not potentially accuse individuals or expose individuals? Is that right?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) I would expect the question to be put in general terms and answered in general terms. If he said, "I hear there are complaints about the cook house, the men are pretty hacked off about the food there", I, because I would probably have been in the cook house once or twice, would have said, "Colonel, I do not think the chefs specialise in nouvelle cuisine".

  1076. Maybe you might even say, perhaps, "The men have a point".
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) Possibly.

  1077. Supposing the commanding officer said to you, "Padre, I think we have a drugs problem in this unit", and supposing that you knew there was a drugs problem in the unit, would you, without saying it is Jones and Bloggs who have been taking drugs, actually confirm that, would you say, "I do think there is a problem", or would you try and hush the thing up?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) I do not think it is a question of hushing it up or anything like that.

  1078. Would you say, "It would not be appropriate for me to answer that question".
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) I think I probably would. How would I know there was a drug problem—

  1079. Somebody might have told you.
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) —other than soldiers telling me that they were on drugs. I do not go down to the bars with them every night and see what pills they are popping.

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