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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.

  • Patrick_Hadley

    Unless An Garda Síochána are bugging all the confessionals it is hard to see how they will be able to find enough evidence to get a conviction. No priest will tell any third party what he has heard in confession, and will always refuse to answer any questions about it. The only possible source of evidence would be if a convicted paedophile turned against his confessor – but how likely is that?

  • Patrick_Hadley

    Unless An Garda Síochána are bugging all the confessionals it is hard to see how they will be able to find enough evidence to get a conviction. No priest will tell any third party what he has heard in confession, and will always refuse to answer any questions about it. The only possible source of evidence would be if a convicted paedophile turned against his confessor – but how likely is that?

  • Cestius

    Additionally, I would hope that the European Court of human rights would eventually tear the Irish government to shreds over this – it is quite clearly an interference with the right to practice one’s faith, particularly a long-established faith like Catholicism.  If it doesn’t, the ECHR really is a waste of space.

  • http://cwchristopher.blogspot.com/ Chris

    If the Church of Ireland re-institutes standard private confession in confessionals, any information would be inadmissible in court because there would be a high level of doubt as to who spoke the confession.

  • Lanfranc

    In Russia and Eastern Europe under the Communists, it was quite common for state informants to make bogus confessions of “crimes against the state”, to see if the priest would (as the law required) communicate the information to the authorities. If the Irish government can descend to introducing such a law, is it really that much more of a descent to adopt such a method of enforcing it?

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    I certainly hope they (the government) change their minds, and my attitude would certainly not be “bring it on” – because it would put priests in an extremely precarious position – from which the result would be quite obvious given a priest’s moral requirements.

    It’s clear this is not designed as anything other than grandstanding on the part of the Irish government and, whatever the outcome, I hope the government will lose over this.

    However, the level of authoritarianism that is required to even bring such issues to court should worry every Irishman, if any charge is ever brought forward as a result of this law.

  • nytor

    Yes, these modern confessionals where one cannot kneel and has to face the priest are extremely distasteful as the mean one cannot adopt the appropriate penitential posture and is denied appropriate privacy. The traditional sort would cast doubt on who was confessing, and so they should, for it should not be apparent.

  • An Exile

     I live in Yorkshire and recently visited Knock going to confession while there, as I usually do.  I have been trying to figure out how – had I confessed to being a child molester, or murderer – the priest would have reported me to the Gardai.  Did he have a mobile phone on which to dial 999?  Or perhaps he could have persuaded the waiting penitents to detain me by force while he rushed to the Garda station?  Or he could follow me until he discovered where I was staying? 
    No doubt the next step will be to insist on each penitent divulging full details, name, address etc. prior to confessing, now that would make it really simple… 

  • http://twitter.com/Ranmore Ranmore

    Putting a purely ideological “sacramental seal” above the safety of children will tell people everything they need to know about the Catholic church and its priests. Have they no conscience or humanity?

  • James H

    ‘Modern confessionals where one cannot kneel and has to face the priest’

    Where are those, then? *Modern* confessionals have had their ‘room-style’ spaces forbidden for years.

  • nytor

    Really? The refurbishment of the church of the Sacred Heart in St. Aubin, Jersey, for instance involved such a monstrosity.

  • Matthew Roth

    Their conscience is precisely the reason that the priests will refuse to break the Seal of Confession,

  • Patrick

    Wow…this sounds very similar to the HHS mandate put forth by the Obama Administration. 
    This is the result of fallout from the sex abuse scandal as well as profoundly unchurched Catholics.

  • Patrick

    Wow…this sounds very similar to the HHS mandate put forth by the Obama Administration. 
    This is the result of fallout from the sex abuse scandal as well as profoundly unchurched Catholics.

  • Markpetergray

    It’s worth noting that if this law were passed, a child abuser may be reluctant to confess there crime, and thus start the process of coming to terms with their crimes. I’m not saying that hundreds or thousands of people turn themselves in as a result of the confessional, but it’s a factor worth considering.

  • Macca

    There is a related question that seems not to have been addressed. Should a priest absolve someone who has confessed such  serious offences  before the person has not placed himself/herself  before the civil authorities, admitted the offences, accepted whatever sentence is imposed and asked for help? I have read that one notorious paedophile claimed to have confessed  his  various sins against children on up to 3000 occasions before the law finally caught up with him. Some Catholics misuse the Sacrament of Reconciliation, viewing it as an alternative to facing up to accepting responsibility for their actions, “a wiping the slate cleaning” before carrying on the same behaviour.
    Where does responsibility for the welfare of the victims  (past and future) of the sins confessed fit in the Catholic view of the Sacarament?

  • New Catholic

    Ranmore, what don’t you understand about:”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.”
    As a clinical psychologist, I have never had a molester admit such to me because they know I have to report it to the police.

  • tlukemoore

    I do think this is a big issue in terms of abuse. It’s unlikely that the big problem is abuse.

    Also two other points I would like to raise:
    1. The confessor could make “handing yourself in” a part of the penance.
    2. How wil, be able to prove that a priest is withholding information without either the words of penitent or somehow wiretapping confessionals

  • James

    I agree with Lanfranc, I think it is possible that a priest would be set up and then reported.  The Irish media would probably be more inclined to do this rather than the government.  A number of media organisations, including some mainstream publications, are very anti-Catholic and might just test the waters and then take a case against a priest. 

    Whether Mr Oddie’s belief that it will help the Church in long run will happen, I’m not so optimistic.  Living in Ireland and listening to people on the streets, the Catholic Church is very unpopular and many actually believe that priests are still abusing children.  One recent survey revealed that many in Ireland today actually believe that one in four priests today are abusing children as we speak. 

    As most Irish Catholics do not go to confession at all, the Seal means nothing to them.  Given their anger with the Church (not all of it a result of child abuse, but rather the Church’s position on contraception, divorce and remarriage and abortion), the Seal will fins few defenders outside the small number who still practice the faith in its fullness. 

    I agree with Mr Oddie that it will unite the Church and clergy.  The bishops will finally be forced to stand for something instead of hiding in the trenches or issuing bland two page “pastoral letters” full of affirming statments.  It will also unite the priests and you will find orthodox priests and the dissenting priests of the ACP standing side by side.  In a sense Alan Shatter will do for the clergy in Ireland what Obama has done for the Church in the US: the common enemy who unites.

  • http://twitter.com/Ranmore Ranmore

    If they put their “conscience” on this purely ideological issue over children’s safety they belong in hell.

  • http://twitter.com/Ranmore Ranmore

    There is no evidence to suggest that the confessional has ever led a paedophile to stop or turn themselves over to the authorities – quite the opposite in fact. So it would seen that the confessional allows them to unburden their consciences – until the next instance of abuse. Why allow them this relief? 

  • Cestius

    As far as I understand it, the priest could make it part of the pennance to confess to the authorities.  I don’t think that can be a general principle though, in some countries the authorities are corrupt and cannot be trusted to deal with it humanely or fairly.

  • Martingfarrell

    This, of course, has nothing to do with the protection of children.  It is, rather, intended to shame and punish the Church, to disestablish her in the minds of the faithful as subordinate to the State, and basically kick her while she’s down.  It may work for a while.  But over the long haul, the eventual failure of the State to replace the Church will shine through, and people will catch on.  The Irish faithful may lose now, but the Irish Government will pay later.

  • Jeannine

    “There is no evidence to suggest that the confessional has ever led a paedophile to stop or turn themselves over to the authorities.”

    How would you or anyone know that unless the paedophile revealed that to the authorities or the priest-confessor broke the seal of confession?

    The priest-confessor is required to withhold absolution if he is convinced that the sinner is not repentent.
     

  • Peekaboo429

     No, a priest can suggest that a person turn themselves in but he cannot force anyone to manifest their conscience in a public forum.  Even if he does not grant absolution, he is still bound by the seal of the confessional as the person came seeking the sacrament.

  • Jeannine

    Suppose the person did not seek the sacrament in good faith or was not repentent & absolution was not given, is the seal of the confessional still required?

  • JabbaPapa

    Or try this –

    Criminal confesses to priest ; priest advises criminal to turn himself in ; criminal does so ; then Police arrest priest for “withholding information”.

  • Matthew Roth

    Yes. 

  • Matthew Roth

    The only ideology coming into play is the one held by Alan Shatter and Co.

    But Holy Mother Church has souls at stake. Shatter needs to quit playing games.

  • CarlosMexico

    I cannot believe, as a Catholic, that the Office of Priesthood comes over and above the well being of innocent people. I do know that it is a Sacramental violation, but, can’t the priest make an anonymous call DURING confession? The Law of the Church cannot bind a man outside his nationality. Moreover, I find it distressing that Canon Law is above the Dignitiy of the Self and Life. 

  • Jack Isaacks

    \I do know that it is a Sacramental violation, but, can’t the priest make an anonymous call DURING confessi\

    This is the theme of the movie PRIEST with Linus Roach.

    A priest simply cannot reveal what he hears in confession. Period. 

    I wonder if the Irish law would protect similar professional confidences heard by medical and mental health professionals?

  • El Nino

    Oh, yes, the Irish Republic gets around to forcing priests to report crimes against children.

    But, wait a second. Have they forgotten the Troubles? When the Provisional IRA and INLA were killing children (amongst others)? Why no move then?

    Pure hypocrisy from the Irish Republic (as usual).

  • Parasum
  • Parasum

    Absolution can be refused. Perhaps an appropriate penance would be, for the offender to turn himself in to the police, just as suggested. At least in Ireland, lack of due process is hardly a problem – undue deference to the cloth OTOH may be. So it’s hard to see why in Ireland priests should not be require to turn themselves in.

    That might be a good penance for all unarrested Catholic criminals. If they are truly sorry, won’t they *want* to make reparation ?  If anyone tries to use the confessionial to escape the law, they don’t sound very sorry for what they’ve done.

    If priests use the confessional to escape the law, it sounds very much as though they are committing sacrilege. Which would make their Masses & the other rites they perform sacrileges (to themselves, though not to others). *Not* clever.

  • Parasum

    The sacrament would not necessarily be violated if the “penitent” disclosed its contents. A third party who comes by knowledge of the content of a sacramental confession (as can happen in a queue in a church) is as bound as the priest. (Which is why some priests discourage the use of lists – they can be lost.) 

    But: the knowledge disclosed by the “penitent” can be disclosed to a third party, if it is freely and willingly & intentionally disclosed (which is not the case when X overhears what Y is confessing).

    Sacramental knowledge often includes knowledge of things known to others than the priest & the penitent. For instance, suppose Catholic Child Y at a Catholic school beats up Catholic Child Z, and a crowd is looking on while this happens. Catholic Child Y confesses. The priest is bound by the seal. But Z is not: when he goes home and explains how he has suddenly acquired two lovely black eyes, he is not the violating the seal by telling his parents that Y has been bullying him yet again. Even though the bullying was one of the items Y has confessed, and even though Z has talked of the confessed action. The material fact of discussing something confessed, is not in itself a violation of the seal; nor is it even in all imaginable circumstances wrong, let alone blameworthy.  

    The mere fact that an item of knowledge is part of a sacramental confession, need not mean that it can be looked upon by everyone who might conceivably know it, *only* as an item in a sacramental confession. So the fact that a criminal confesses the same crime to a priest & to a policemen, does not in itself make his confession to the policeman a violation of the sacrament. He is not talking to the policeman as to a priest, for police are not priests, but is addressing him in his capacity as an officer of the law: IOW, as a policeman. That the action confessed to the police is regarded as a sin by the CC does not make the criminal’s confession to the police a violation of the seal. The confessor is always bound – the “penitent”, is not always bound, though in some circumstances he can be.    

    The priest can’t *compel* the “penitent” to confess a crime to the police, but, turning oneself is not just a “good wheeze”; it is little, if anything, short of a moral obligation.   

  • Parasum

    It would however be a sacrilege. Any priest who did such thing would be committing a sacrilege not only on that occasion, but every time he celebrated a sacrament; for he would be dealing with holy things even though he was in mortal sin.  

  • Parasum

     then Police arrest priest for “withholding information”.

    ## There is no reason why that should happen. Priests atre protected by the seal, and this is recognised in civil law. The laity are liable to be charged with the crime of with-holding information, precisely because they have no such privileged status, and can therefore reasonably be required not to with-hold information. For them to do so, would be a crime. For a priest, it would not be a crime, because although he would not be disclosing information, the non-disclosure is a consequence of his work as a Catholic priest: because the CC’s theology & practice do not allow disclosure.

    So there is no true analogy between the priest’s possession of confessional knowledge, and the penitent’s possession of it: from the POV of civil law, they have very different obligations.

    So the priest would be in no danger for not telling the police what he has told the criminal to tell them. So that is no reason why telling them could not be  given as as a penance.

  • Matthew Roth

    How would he be in mortal sin? 

  • Matthew Roth

    No it’s not. It’s upholding the dignity of the person who is placing himself before God to confess his sins. 

  • JabbaPapa

    You describe the current state of affairs, not the one that would exist if the “crime” in question were created by the Irish Parliament.

  • julianzzz

    A priest who buggers children has already lost his seat in the Kingdom of Heaven. Being excommunicated could hardly matter to a person who was condemned already to fry in hell. Mind you, if the corrupted fool believed that his confession without repentance was enough to protect him, then the sacrament of confession would have been used in the cycle of abuse!

    All of this obscene activity and its consequences could have been avoided if only the church elite had moved on at least 600 years in its thinking and also abandoned it’s obession with control of the faithful, in thought, word and deed. By their fruits you shall know them, it looks like the Irish state, along with many other Western states are currently more deserving of the keys to the kingdom of heaven than our current fractious weak church leadership! 

  • chiaramonti

    Remember the priest, played by Montgomery Clift, in Hitchcock’s “I Confess.” Refusing to break the seal of the confessional, he was tried for a murder committed by the penitent who had confessed the crime to him. Defending himslef in court, he refused to break the seal of the confessional. The investigating police officer comes across in the film as a complete idiot who fails to appreciate the obvious and contrived account of the truly guilty penitent. The Irish State, in part corrupt from its inception, has tried to shift its own responsibility for the scandal of child abuse from itself to the Church. Many priests and religious were undoubtably guilty of grave crimes but at the time these activities were taking place the reaction of the legal authorities in Ireland was pathetic and in part indifferent. Just as some of them were indifferent to the murderous activities of the IRA. Dr. Oddie is right. This misconceived legislation will reflect no credit on the Irish State.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    Normally an accused has the right to remain silent and not incriminate himself.  Will this fundamental right be abrogated by the legislation?  However whether or not I am afraid this will expose priests to “sting” operations of the kind we have already seen being  tried on doctors and counsellors by the LGBT lobby.  But will not the sight of a priest standing in the dock and refusing to break the seal not be a great witness?

  • Alan

    The Law in question will make no reference to the ‘seal of confession’, but simply makes no exception for it. The legal recognition for the seal of confession rests on case law, the more recent of which cited the special recognition of the Catholic Church in Ireland as expressed in the 1937 Constitution. However, this Article of the Constitution was removed, with the consent of the Church, in the 1970s. Any future case law on this will take account of this, but no one knows how the courts will act. 

  • Alan

    The Law in question will make no reference to the ‘seal of confession’, but simply makes no exception for it. The legal recognition for the seal of confession rests on case law, the more recent of which cited the special recognition of the Catholic Church in Ireland as expressed in the 1937 Constitution. However, this Article of the Constitution was removed, with the consent of the Church, in the 1970s. Any future case law on this will take account of this, but no one knows how the courts will act.  

  • Gavin Wheeler

     Oh, hush!

    Reasonable debate gets in the way of all the frothing indignation. ;)

  • Gavin Wheeler

     “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.””

    ..

    .

    what?

  • Alan

    Indeed. There is no reference at all in this legislation to priests, religion, confession or anything related to that. The proposed Bill makes no reference to it all, nor, in fact, does any other Statute Law in force in Ireland. The legal basis for the legal privilege of the seal of confession rests on common law and on judicial precedent. 

    The Defamation Act 2009 also makes no reference to the seal of confession and it is technically possible to fall you of that act for making a defamatory comment about a person to a third party, which is something that could happen in confession. That Act lays out two forms of privileged comment; absolute and qualified. No reference to confession or communication with religious persons in either.  No frothing indignation then, so why now?

  • Alan

    What was the religion of those legal authorities and of the vast majority of parliamentarians and government ministers at that time? 

  • JabbaPapa

    Nope — the seal of confession is defined by canon Law, that all Catholics MUST adhere to and obey.

    Canon Law is far more ancient and proven than Irish Republican Civil Law, which last is BTW *entirely* to blame for the lack of any provisions in Law (including _right now_ in 2012) for the systematic obligatory reporting of allegations of child sex abuses made *outside* the Confessional, outside the Legal Counseling room, outside the Psychologist’s Surgery, and many many other such circumstances where confidentiality is a basic professional requirement.