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The Irish government is going to make it a criminal offence for a priest not to tell the gardai when a sex offender confesses his crime: I say, bring it on

A few dozen Irish priests in jail will do the Church nothing but good

By on Friday, 15 June 2012

Alan Shatter, Ireland's Minister for Justice (PA photo)

Alan Shatter, Ireland's Minister for Justice (PA photo)

“It has to be made clear to everyone, including the main Church in this State, that the rights of children and the laws of the land come first,” Senator David Cullinane was reported by the Irish Times as saying earlier this week in Seanad Éireann. “Priests should know that they cannot use the confessional seal as a reason for not coming forward with information on abuse.”

And that is what the government of the Irish republic has now reaffirmed. According to the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, if a priest or a bishop, prosecuted under the legislation he intends to introduce, were to claim entitlement to “some form of privilege”, the courts might be called on to decide the issue, since the special position of the Catholic Church has been removed from the Constitution. He did not, he went on, believe that where a child or a vulnerable adult had been a victim of abuse, the Irish courts would hold that it was “of benefit to the State” that those who knew of the abuse should conceal it.

And so, there we are. They are really going ahead with this. Last month, Shatter announced the publication of his bill, which will make it a criminal offence for a priest who learns while hearing a confession about a case or cases of child abuse, from the abuser himself, not to break the seal of the confessional and inform the civil authorities of what he knows. The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill is, says the Irish government, one element of a “suite of legislation to protect children and vulnerable adults to which the Government is committed”.

It is the classic tension between the law of the state and the law of God: we are back, in Ireland of all places (Ireland, semper fidelis, Pope John Paul ironically called it), to Becket and Henry II. But the problems the Irish State is going to have with this legislation will not be solved by moving against one or more troublesome priests who resist it: the divided Irish Church will be as one in resisting it: not one single priest will obey it. Even the ultra-liberal Association of Catholic Priests has condemned the proposed legislation: “I certainly wouldn’t be willing to break the seal of Confession for anyone,” was the reaction of Fr Sean McDonagh, one of the ACP’s leaders.

Of course he wouldn’t. It’s the one thing no Catholic priest would ever do; it’s in the basic DNA of the priesthood. According to article 1467 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears Confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that Confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the ‘sacramental seal’, because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains ‘sealed’ by the sacrament.”

Those “very severe penalties” are severe indeed, as severe as it gets: the Code of Canon Law is very clear: “A confessor who directly violates the seal of Confession incurs an automatic excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See”: that means that he loses the most precious things in his life: he loses both the sacraments of the Church and the exercise of his priesthood, and also that these things can be restored to him only by the Pope himself. As Fr William Saunders puts it: “A priest … cannot break the seal to save his own life, to protect his good name, to refute a false accusation, to save the life of another, to aid the course of justice (like reporting a crime), or to avert a public calamity. He cannot be compelled by law to disclose a person’s confession or be bound by any oath he takes, eg as a witness in a court trial. A priest cannot reveal the contents of a Confession either directly, by repeating the substance of what has been said, or indirectly, by some sign, suggestion, or action. A Decree from the Holy Office (Nov. 18, 1682) mandated that confessors are forbidden, even where there would be no revelation direct or indirect, to make any use of the knowledge obtained in the Confession that would ‘displease’ the penitent or reveal his identity.”

We know that all, of course: but more importantly, so does the Irish government. So what are they playing at? Well, politics, of course. They want to back the Irish Church even further into the very hard place it at present inhabits, by making it look as though the Church doesn’t even want to confront the problem of clerical child abuse. “I would expect,” says Mr Shatter, “that if there was someone going to Confession who was a serial sex abuser, I don’t know how anyone could live with their conscience if they didn’t refer that to the gardai.” So it’s now a matter of conscience that a priest should betray his priesthood.

But suppose the clergy said they would inform on a child abuser? The child abuser wouldn’t be in the confessional in the first place if he didn’t want to face up to what he had done. And as David Quinn has pointed out: “No child abuser will go to a priest in Confession knowing the priest is required to inform the police. But cutting off the avenue of confession to a child abuser makes it less likely that he will talk to someone who can persuade him to take the next step.” The next step is himself to go to the police: it does happen. A confessor may and should try to convince him of that; but he will never get the chance if abusers are scared away from the confessional.

It is the very identity, the raison d’etre of the Church the Irish State is now bent on weakening: but this is a battle they will lose. In defence of the seal of the confessional, of the law of God over the law of the state, saints and martyrs over the ages have gone to their deaths. No Irish priest will lose his life over this: but if the Irish State wants to turn the Irish clergy from being perceived by Irish public opinion as perpetrators or at least collaborators to being seen (as were Catholic priests of earlier centuries, both in Ireland and also here in England) as victims of an unjust law, let it be so: a few dozen Irish priests in jail could both restore the Church’s reputation for self-sacrifice and integrity and even serve as a kind of vicarious penance for what is past, the innocent suffering for the guilty. If they really want a cause célèbre, in which the Church is victimised by the State, I say bring it on.

I have a small statue, which I bought in Prague shortly after I became a Catholic over 20 years ago, of St John Nepomuk, who might be described as the Thomas à Becket of the Bohemian Church. St John was the vicar general to the Archbishop of Prague. King Wenceslas IV, a dissolute, capricious and easily enraged young man, became suspicious that his virtuous Queen was involved in a sexual intrigue with a courtier. St John was the Queen’s confessor. Although Wenceslas (definitely not Good King Wenceslas) was himself extremely promiscuous, he became increasingly jealous of his wife. Wencelas tortured St John to force him to reveal the content of the Queen’s confessions. In the end, St John was thrown into the River Vltava and drowned, on March 20, 1393. I bought my little statue of him from an old lady on the Charles Bridge in Prague, at the very spot where, according to tradition, St John was thrown to his death. As I write, it stands on my desk.

No Irish priest, as I say, will lose his life over this. But I really hope the Irish government presses on with this astonishing and unique legislation, and that the courts uphold it. Then we shall see what the Irish Church is really made of. Irish Catholics will be united by it: and in the end, the government will have to back down.

  • Let it be…..

    I’m only new to the catholic faith and it’s been life changing for me, I was personally a victim of childhood abuse so these issues are very sensitive for myself and many others. I truly do believe in the forgiveness of sins I always found that hard to get my head around but to forgive a perpetrator is and has been a long healing process. This issue I’m confused with, I only now understand fully the catholic faith where confession is concerned, but I’m in two minds to whether this is right or wrong. Would our lord upon given confession from say man back then saying he is a child abuser, have forgave ( I believe he would forgive if this was heartfelt and sincere) but for the love our lord has of little children would he let that man roam free as a risk to children, the lord is all knowing so I believe the lord when he was upon earth knew what we only now understand and that is that pedophiles can’t be cured, it’s an illness a sick one at that. It’s fornication at its most evil so that then makes me think well would that perpetrator be forgiven as Jesus being all knowing would know that it’s evil. I think the lord gave the gift of forgiveness of sins to the disciples but he also blessed them with wisdom, wisdom to use and act upon. A criminal should never be able to confess to a priest and roam free, because that priest can also retain that sin as jesus told Peter and in cases of pedophiles wisdom should be used… I said this is new to me, I’ve battled this subject internally and have forgiven the uncle who took my childhood and ripped it apart but do I believe he deserved to be jailed yes I do …for the protection of other children who might not be able to forgive therefore staying on that path of destruction which in turn itself can lead one away from our lord…I know I’m testimony to my past of self destruction ………

  • Acleron

    If the so called thinking of the creationists etc is so inviolate, open the creationist sites to free open discussion and I’ll debate it there. But on this article I’ll just correct the falsity of your position. 

  • Lit201

    Physics proves that the earth gets a little further from the sun each year.  Reverse this and imagine how near to the sun we would have been “millions and millions of years ago..” as evolutionists love to quote.  There are many more objections to the “Theory of Evolution” – it’s only a theory, but it has become a religion for atheists.  The whole concept of the theory undermines the first Book of the Old Testament, which is the whole point of this ridiculous “Theory”.

  • Lit201

    The world wants to discredit the Catholic Church because of its stance on abortion, homosexuality, contraception and divorce.  Hence, the skewed view that sexual abuse is rife in our Church.  Fact is, there is probably more sexual abuse among other ‘man-made’ religions and secular society; why wouldn’t there be?  This world sexualises children in the media and now in the classroom.  It is such hypocrisy to then point the finger at the tiny proportion of abusers among our clergy.  Get things in proportion and then MAYBE the real issue of child abuse can be tackled.

  • JabbaPapa

    You’re talking rubbish.

    Science and Faith/Religion/Spirituality are not polar opposites.

    Biblical literalism is an intellectual non-starter.

  • Myles Keogh

    Outstanding article Mr. Oddie. You are absolutely right!

  • Lit201

    That’s some leap.  Evolutionists just cannot seem to use their reason.  That’s what comes of believing in lies all because you cannot bear the idea that there really is God looking at your every move. 

  • JabbaPapa

    Sorry, you’re talking rubbish.

  • Macsfieldimages

    Of course he doesn’t understand the Seal or Sacrament, how could he? Shatter is of the Jewish belief and therefore rejects the entirety and validity of the Sacrament established by Christ. What he has now done, is to justify Hitler’s killing of the Jews, since it was the Law at the time. He has also justified the murder of those who gave protection to Jews during that time. It seems that Judas is alive and well!! Bring it on Minister, it took a far better man than you (Cromwell) to try and destroy Christ’s Church, and he failed miserably too – just as you will.

  • Carpe

    Doesn’t the right to remain silent only come into play if speaking would incriminate the speaker, himself? Meaning there is no right to remain silent if speaking would only incriminate the accused?

  • Honeybadger

    The Irish Government is playing a very, very stupid and dangerous game with this bill.

    Just who do they think they are? Are they attempting to brand all Roman Catholics as child molesters?What if you are NOT an RC? Would it be any easier to expose a paedophile if they are not RC?

    It’s like saying all Muslims are terrorists, honour killers and suicide bombers!

    Besides, it is most unlikely for a paedophile to admit that what they are doing is evil, heinous and downright sinful. When they are caught, questioned, brought to court and eventually jailed, they show as much remorse as a breezeblock for their crimes. Instead, it is everybody else’s fault but theirs!

    Therefore, what are the chances of them going anywhere near a confessional!

    So - with all the so-called experts on their speed-dials that they can call up anytime to tell the Irish Government the facts about child abuse, whether by a lay person or a cleric from any religion – why do they persist in taking out their shortcomings and inadequacies out on the Roman Catholic Church?

    I’ll tell you why. They want to enter Tub Thumping as an Olympic sport!

    Actually, they’d be better off Hot Air Ballooning, supplying their own hot air.

    The priest in the confessional could counsel the penitent that, if they are truly sorry for what they have done, that they should go to the police, make a clean breast of it.

    If one is not sorry for their crimes, absolution would be a waste of time until remorse hits them between the eyes like a high speed train!

  • Gavin Wheeler

     “Just who do they think they are?”

    The Government??

    “The priest in the confessional could counsel the penitent that, if they
    are truly sorry for what they have done, that they should go to the
    police, make a clean breast of it.”

    But that appears not to be happening.
    “He recalled: “In all the times I confessed to abusing a minor, I can
    only remember one occasion when I got a reprimand or advice not to do
    this again.””

  • Dantescomedy


    Is doctor-patient confidentiality to be included in
    this bill as well?  How about a solicitor
    defending a client where he/she has reasonable doubt (or hard evidence) about the
    guilt of whom he/she’s defending?  No
    priest will break the seal of confession!

  • Cjkeeffe

    It has to be made clear to everyone, including the main Church in this State, that the rights of children and the laws of the land come first,” Why has Ireland lagged so far behind other western countries in legislating to protect the child. England had the Chikldren Act 1989 which made child welfare teh paramouth consideration in child cases.
    When is the Irish State going to inisist on the resignation of teh Gardai Commissioner and teh headsof teh welfare boards for failure to protect children? The reports into the failutres of the church have equally castgated the civil authorites for their failures yet no one is calling brimestone onto them. There needs to be fairness in this. The Church failed as it applied the civil understanding of child abuse to cases.

  • Cjkeeffe

    wrong so many times when?

  • Dcruz

    This is an attempt to destablise the Church and make people frustrated and leave the church. Islam is on the door steps 

  • Cjkeeffe

    The Church failed in this area because it followed advice from civil experts. Psycologist understood taht child abuse coudl be cured afetr a series of theraphy. Now medical experts disagree with this. But in the 1960′s – 1990′s the civil courts followed this advice and would return an abusive father to eth house after theraphy. The court did likewise with priests. It is somewhat hypocritcal of profesions who once expoused a view to to condem an organisation for taking that advice

  • Ronk

     Any Catholic who is at least half educated, and all priests, are well aware that confessing any sin WITHOUT the firm resolve NEVER to sin again, is an INVALID Confession and the Sacrament and the words of absolution have no effect. On the contrary, the fake penitent is committing a FURTHER grave sin by lying to the priest in Confession  when he tells the priest (as he is requuired to do) that he is resolved not to commit the sin again.

  • P Shafton

     Your suspicion, Lit201, is well grounded. This move is most definitely orchestrated from higher up -  perhaps actually lower down. This is something that appears to have come from the Church’s primal enemy, Satan himself.
    What good will this law do for justice? After all in a court it is only hearsay – the priest’s word against the accused. It’s not too hard to identify the mind behind this issue.

  • Mjmorani

    Do you think Jesus would be offended by all this child abuse?

  • Dabbsge

    If the priest does not report the info, how will the authorities know the sex offender has confessed the abuse? You can’t prosecute what you can’t prove. This is just a political move against the Christian faith, a law impossible to enforce, making a negative image of the House of God and the Priests that serve there,

  • Vic Matos

    I think that is awesome and kudos to the Irish government for putting their foot down on this issue. The Hippocratic Oath is older still than the Catholic Church. It has been updated and modernized to meet current standards. A doctor is obliged to keep confidential what their patient tell them unless it brings harm to another person. 

    If the age of a rule or tradition is the litmus test for its sanctity, then the sacrament of penance should not, cannot be above scrutiny when even a 5th century creed can be changed to fit modern society. I understand that many abusers will not confess, but this puts the onus on the Catholic leadership to properly disclose transgressions by the clergy itself. 

  • Beherit

    Its about time legislation was introduced to force these priests to report any crimes they are aware of. The Irish people, both believers and non believers have had enough of the tyranny, bigotry and hatred that the church seems to not only promote but activley encourage, not to mention the numerous and seemingly endless abuse of children. The church deserves to be kicked while its down, it should never have been allowed to rise as high as it did in past generations. All you people moaning about seal of connfession need a reality check. What if it was your child being raped by a paedo priest? Double standards much? Irish civil law supersedes canon law in every circumstance. This is a democratic republic that we live in, not the crime ring that is the vatican state. You have the right to practice whatever faith you want but once that faith interferes with somebody else, it ceases to be an human rights issues of interference of practicing said faith so there is no avenue to pursue in EU courts. In any case, no one, sorry man (because woman are on equal footing with dirt in the church) in their right mind is choosing to become a priest these days so in the next 20 odd years, there will be no one left but a bunch of decrepit old pervs rambling on about humility and morals. The catholic church has had its time, its is no longer relevant or considered important by anyone but the hierarchy in the vatican and maybe byu a few deluded citizens too brainwashed to see that they are supporting a global paedophile ring.

  • Beherit

    Fuck you admin, deleting information may have worked in the past, no more though
    Enjoy the litle bit of power you still possess
    Hail Satan

  • Dominic Johnson

    Any priest that knows or suspects that child abuse is occuring is free and morally bound like any other person to report ofenders. However, if someone conmmits abuse, then in order for them to obtain absolution that person has to do everything possible to show true remorse- including handing themselves over to the authorities and making an admission. If offenders knew that priests would break the seal of confession and reoprt them- It is doubtful whether they would go to confession anyway.

  • Carmel

    Yes, the sacrament of  confession is sacred and cannot be broken. However, the Vatican decreed that as their clergy were not in public office they therefore did not have a civic duty to report any sexual allegations against vulnerable children in their care. Nothing was said about divulging information on child rapists through confession. This I took as the church did not have to disclose information given to them by other priests, parents and not forgetting CHILDREN.
    What you are missing here is that the church should bankrupt itself in an act of contrition for its totally inappropriate handling of the rape allegations.
    Any school child  having studied  O’ level psychology would believe that there is a profound problem with young clergyman taking their vows of celibacy from the age of 17. This is the modern world. These men are not wondering the desert with little or no human contact. For the love of God can you not see it.
    The Irish government has to do what it thinks is morally and lawfully prudent to do….MAN UP

  • Realist

    ‘As Fr William Saunders puts it:
    “A priest … cannot break the seal…  to save the life of another…, or to avert a
    public calamity.’


  • Peter

    It is quite clear, that those who proposed this legislation
    and those who support it are not practicing Catholics and have no idea what
    confession is all about. If they did they would most surely know the identity
    of the forces behind it. Perhaps this is too much to ask because the media to
    which they would undoubtedly turn is also controlled by the same dark force. Satan
    loves ignorance, after all, isn’t that how he controls the masses?

    For nearly 2000 years the agents of Satan have tried to ‘break’
    Christ’s Church – they have failed; and they will fail again. Didn’t Jesus
    Himself promise us that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church?
    He will always be with his faithful.

  • Myles Keogh

    Mr Oddie,
    I just want to say “Thanks” for this great editorial and your other posted comments. You do a wonderful job and you hit the nail on the head.

    Keep up the great work. My friends and I enjoy reading your editorials and the Catholic Herald UK here in the States.

  • Myles Keogh

     Malarkey! Vows of celibacy have nothing to do with peodophilia and everything to do with morally bankrupt souls and individuals. Here in the US there have been report after report married men and women molesting young children. Married Protestant Ministers and Rabbi’s have been busted here in the US for molestation. Turn on the news in every state and you will hear about married teacher’s having sex with underage students. Recently a married long time Assistant football coach at Penn State University was just tried and found guilty of molesting boys as young as 12 in the locker room showers while he was a coach there. The result of that scandal and the coverup by the university administration there was just as heinous the acts by these homosexually, perverted priests and the cover up in some dioceses by their bishops.

    The problem is not celibacy.  The problem is a morally bankrupt society and culture that promotes and glorifies homosexuality, promiscious heterosexuual sex, pornography, and every other deviant lifestyle and behaviors as something that should be accepted and normal. Lower standards to the lowest denominator and this is what happens.

  • Fr Thomas Poovathinkal

    “….and in the end, the government will have to back down.”