Church of England Vicars could be allowed to report serious crimes they hear during confessions, including confessions of child or sexual abuse, if sweeping changes to the Church of England are introduced later this year.

The changes will come as a shock to churchgoers, who have shared a pact whereby the secrecy of the confessional booth has remained sacrosanct for more than 400 years.

Former bishop John Gladwin is leading the drive to compel vicars to report serious crimes that members admit to during a confession.

Gladwin led last year's inquiry into sex abuse crimes committed by members of the Church of England clergy. He has the support of members of the General Synod, the legislative body of the Church of England.

The sacrament of confession, or penance, usually takes place in the Catholic Church, although some Church of England vicars do hear confessions. Christians believe privately confessing sins and shortcomings to a vicar or priest and showing contrition can earn forgiveness from God.

The Archbishop Justin Welby last year urged more Anglicans to adopt the practice of going to confession, saying the experience can be "enormously powerful".

Bishop Gladwin is campaigning for vicars to report people who confess serious crimes to the police. He said: "It is very important that anything criminal that involves the abuse of people should not be protected. Action has to happen."

The Reverend Simon Caldwell, a member of the General Synod, has tabled a motion calling for the change in the law, which is set to be debated at the next General Synod meeting in November.

Both are said to believe that a model used by the Anglican Church in Australia, which allows its priests to go to the police and report crimes if the person refuses to turn themselves in. The Australian General Synod voted for the change in July, saying the safety of victims must be the Church's primary concern.

A Church of England spokesperson said: "The guidelines for clergy are being considered for debate in November at General Synod. The Australian model is one of a number of options which will be considered as part of the ongoing discussions."