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

“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”.

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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.

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