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Irish government seeks to compel priests to break seal of confession

By on Monday, 18 July 2011

Enda Kenny, Ireland's prime minister, has said that canon law should not supersede state law (Julien Behal/PA Wire)

Enda Kenny, Ireland's prime minister, has said that canon law should not supersede state law (Julien Behal/PA Wire)

The group that represents Ireland’s Catholic priests has said the secrecy of confession must be protected despite government indications that confessions would not be exempt from rules on mandatory reporting of child abuse.

Irish Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald said: “The point is, if there is a law in the land, it has to be followed by everybody. There are no exceptions, there are no exemptions.”

Fr PJ Madden, spokesman for the Association of Catholic Priests, insisted that the sacramental seal of confession is “above and beyond all else” and should not be broken even if a penitent confesses to a crime.

Fr Madden said he would strongly urge and appeal to the penitent – whether a priest or anyone else – to confess a crime to the police and have the civil aspect dealt with, but that he did not approve of the idea of reporting what was said.

“If I’m breaking the law then somebody has to find a way to address that for me … but in my own right as a priest what I understand is the seal of confession is above and beyond all else,” he said.

“The seal of confession is a very sacred seal for lots of different reasons way beyond this one single issue, however serious this one single issue is,” Fr Madden said.

The Irish government said it would introduce legislation that makes it mandatory for priests to reveal details of child abuse, even if they become known in the confessional. The offence is punishable with up to five years in prison.

The announcement came after a judicial commission investigating the Diocese of Cloyne revealed that allegations of abuse were being mishandled and withheld from the police as recently as 2008.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said last week that canon law would not be allowed to supersede state law.

Ms Fitzgerald, meanwhile, said the government was not concerned about “the rules governing any body”.

“This is about the law of the land. It’s about child protection. Are we saying … if a child is at risk of child sexual abuse that should not be reported? We cannot say that. The law of the land is clear and unambiguous,” she said.

Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore told the American Catholic News Service that the bishops would await the publication of the legislation before assessing it. However, he said, he felt it was “unreal to suggest that the seal of confession has prevented the reporting of the abuse of children”.

The new legislation is not expected to be published this autumn, and sources close to the Irish bishops’ conference expected that a heavy lobbying campaign would get under way to ensure that a suitable exemption is considered.

David Quinn, director of the think-tank the Iona Institute, called the proposal “unprecedented”.

“This would make us the one and only country in the Western world to have such a law. Even revolutionary France in the days of its worst violence against the Church did not pass a law requiring the breaking of the seal of confession,” Mr Quinn told Catholic News Service.

He said the government “is clearly missing something that every other government can see, which is that, at a minimum, such a law is very unlikely to lead to a single conviction and, at a maximum, will be counter-productive and will make society less safe, rather than more safe.”

“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,” he added.

  • Stateman26

    Jeannine, St.Augustine was born in Rome.  This hardly makes him a German or a Frank.

  • AgingPapist

    If the priests in Ireland are worth their salt, they should stand
    together and refuse to comply with this outrageous sop to the liberal
    anti-religious lobby.
    The superstition-mongering clergy can always refuse to testify.  That is their privilege. It is also the privilege of the state to see to it they spend their time in prison for refusing to comply with the law. Everyone else in a modern, democratic society is subject to the law. There is no reason to exempt these criminals in cassocks.

  • chiaramonti

    “I die the King’s good servant BUT God’s first”.  The BUT is very important!

  • chiaramonti

    Remember Hitchcock’s film, “I Confess”?  Look what happened when the priest to whom the killer had confessed tried to frame that innocent priest who risked conviction and public hostility rather than break the seal of the confessional. Is this to be the new Ireland?

  • Kennyinliverpool

    I agree with the government on this. The existing pastoral approach has failed. What the priests could do to get around this is to tell the confessing priest they need to go to the police as part of their penance? 

    The Church should not be connected with covering up child abuse — this is so ridiculous. 

  • Kennyinliverpool

    This isn’t about suffering for the faith it’s about not covering up child abuse.

    It’s not as if the Irish government wanted to do this, but has been forced to by the failure of the priesthood to keep itself in order.

    I am struggling to view this situation as some glorious road to martyrdom 

  • Kennyinliverpool

    But absolution is dependent on the person being sorry. And because most abusers do it more than once it could be argued that they aren’t really sorry, or are unable to stop. In this sense the priest could say that evidence of their true repentance would be to go to the police and confess for having sexually abused a child / young person in their care.

    I think we are all shocked at the thought of a priest sexually abusing a young person – this is the issue here, not really confession. If the priesthood had not been sexually abusing children and had responded to this situation more effectively the government would not have been forced into passing this law.

    I can understand why / how the government has been pressured to do this, because it appears that the Church has been protecting itself and shielding abusers from the secular legal system.

    Hopefully no priest will abuse a child — it’s so CRAZY that this even happens. If it does, they need to be punished and de-frocked – because no true apostle of Christ could / would do such a thing?

  • Kennyinliverpool

    I would prefer them to stand together against sexually abusing children

    If someone rapes or abuses a child they need to be punished and children need to be protected?

    I think that’s a more pressing issue, and actually a Christian thing to do — what would Jesus prefer; the confession to be kept ‘sacred’ or for children to be protected from being raped by HIS representatives?

  • Kennyinliverpool

    I know – it’s like saying we’ll rape your child but we won’t have it reported to the police because Jesus gave us amazing powers to not inform the police when systematic abuse is happening.

    Whilst I can see where the religious zealots are coming from (a little bit) they seem to be blind to WHY this law is being passed. It has not happened in a historic vacuum but by the large scale abuse of children by church leaders — anyone who is a Christian should be so appalled at this situation — I am just shocked that people are defending the seal of confession OVER the protection of children — and yes, I realize that’s a dichotomy.

    If priests didn’t abuse children there wouldn’t be a need for this law — ! Don’t blame the secular authorities for this situation, look closer to home!

  • Vconnolly11

    Those who are faithful to Jesus Christ will quite rightly tell the Government to get lost over breaking the Seal of Confession. This is just another way of  trying to control the Church by the state. What hasnot been thought of is a person going to Confession may go to a Priest that doesnot know the Penitent,so he cannot report the penitent to the Police. However, just tell the government to get lost. We are Christians and our duty is to GOD first.

  • Parasum

    Why do Celtic countries have such a massive problem with self-pity ? The question is whether Ireland has ever been Christian, rather than merely Catholic.

    @n@nytor:disqus ytor:
    “the state seeking to arrogate to itself the right to violate the seal of the confessional is also an outrage.”

    Unfortunately, the Church has asked for this. It has never yet attended to questions such as the rights of the state. its theology of the sacrament is individualistic, and it is concerned only with its own rights. Whether the Church’s sacramental doctrine & discipline has consequences for the state outside the Church, has not been considered. The current collision is a direct result of this all-pervading clericalist contempt for all that is not the Church, which is so rightly described as “narcissistic”. The Church (meaning the clerical caste & its leaders) is a sectarian body which loves itself too well to be able to notice that anyone else even exists – hence the yawning gaps in its theology of penance. This dream of a smaller purer Church is a mirage & a heresy, and a denial of the Incarnation. Rome is too fixated on Platonic notions of a flawless hierarchical Church to be Christian, except sometimes.    

  • Parasum

    yet attended  = yet, in its theology & discipline of the sacrament of penance, attended

  • Parasum

    Bullseye ! Since the State, like the Church, is of Divine origin, why not ? The old idea that the Church was superior to the State is badly in need of revision: this time, it’s the hierarchs who need to be evangelised. Maye the state can do this for them. They seem, with honourable exceptions, to have no clue what Christianity actually involves.

  • Parasum

    “This is not to say it negates the law of the land; OBVIOUSLY NOT”

    In practice, it does. Priests have to become parties to crime, in order to be faithful to Catholic teaching. It requires them, in effect, to conceal crimes & hinder the arrest of criminals; which is not the way a faithful subject of a state should behave.

  • Parasum

    How is that *not* an excuse for treason on a fine-sounding pretext ? A religion that fosters crime is a danger to the state. It has a choice – of ceasing to foster crime, and living within the law of the like everyone else; or of continuing in its evil ways, and being suppressed like the criminal conspiracy it behaves as. If it can’t stop being a danger to others, it needs to be suppressed. Maybe the Chinese have the right idea after all… – except for the bad stuff.

    The days are long in the past when the exemption of clerics from the law of the land was justifiable. Ther was a time when it could be morre or less justifiable, for the protection of the Church as a whole in a society still barbarian & pre-Christian. Those days ended almost a thousand years ago. The Clerical Church, unfortunately for the Church & society, fights tooth and nail to keep privileges it has been given, and turns into weapons for attacking societies more Christian than itself the very privileges it at first needed in order to survive. That’s why Pius IX moved heaven and earth to retain the Papal States, even though they were bad for the rest of the Italian peninsula, because they made the Papacy look like another earthly state instead of a Church.  Canon law is still suck in this clericalist attitude – if it ends in harming Christ’s faithful, then it’s not worth less than a condom.

    The State is of Divine origin – that is part of traditional Catholic political philosophy. It is not subject to the Church, not when the Church is opposed to the healthh of the state; which it is, when the Church Clerical undermines the just claims of the state by undermining the moral obligations of priedsts to the state. And the ChuCle does that when it refuses priests the liberty to report the confessions of criminals. The State has suffered from the ChuCle for too long for this to continue.

    Canon law is not needed; all that’s needed – apart from a working moral sense & a conscience - is legislation acceptable to Church & state alike for regulating the conduct of the Church in the state. The Church should stop trying to be a state, and behave as a Church, since it is in theory meant to be one. The world has quite enough para-states & micro-states to be going on with.  

  • Parasum

    …then it’s not worth less than a condom.  = …then it’s worth less than a condom.

  • Parasum

    The “Witchcraft Bull” ? What about it ?

  • Nkowansenga, Patrick

    I am no longer exercising as a Catholic priest but I never thought any day I would reveal what I know under seal of confession.  Yes, that is sacred.  I know a friend priest who said even if he is drank or quarrels with his penitent, cannot do that. He will only concentrate to what is the issue at stake and not what said out trust and under seal of confession. 

  • Coghlanronan

    The Seal should remain sacrosanct.  As a Catholic, Mr Kenny should know it takes precedence over anything else.  The only way to circumvent such legislation is for priests to absolve without a confession.  I believe this can be done as a General Absolution.

    Mr Kenny shows his own ignorance of Catholic doctrine if he seeks to enforce such a law.

  • Wilbur Cashman Jr.

    No one cares too much what catholic priests in Ireland do. They have become Pariah breed and are not given deference or respect. It is just as easy to go to confession on line. There is a growing demand for this facility. I belong to a group of “Homesteader Catholics” and we attend mass on line, because there is no priest. One of the ladies goes to the priest once a month and gets a months supply of communion, just like going to the supermarket. There is a marvellous choice of masses to celebrate worldwide. So who needs the priest. Priests are like lamplighters and town criers; obsolete. Here in Webster Springs we are doing just “fine, on line” it is 07:55 am and all is well.

  • David Ayalon Weehawken NJ

    I have been to confession on line and it’s really good. After making the confession (giving testamony). You do not receive absolution but you have to make genuine restution to all those you have offended. You are given a pin number in terms of confidentially (like a bank) and the financial penalties are severe if the restitution is not verified. If a crime has been committed then you must sign an untaken to go to the police or allow the confessor to reveal the matter to the police. All professional counsellors make clear at the outset that confidentiality can not be given in terms of crime. This is a good thing !!!  No priest needed.

  • David Ayalon Weehawken NJ

    No it will not be illegal, it will be reclassified as superstition with astrology, fortune telling, palmistry, aromatherapy, homeopathy and all other acts of charlatanism where there is no scientific or logical basis. There is pending legislation within the EC to stop charlatans like the catholic church exploiting the vulnerable and stealing their money. Masses for the dead and money for indulgences, selling Lourdes water, statues, medals and crucifixes will be outlawed (check this with your MEP). The Vatican God squad have met their Waterloo.

  • Aisake

    Have mercy on us Lord and let justice prevail, and may the perpetrator vanish and defeat. Holy Mary pray for us and the whole world 

  • D B McGinnity

    Father Levi makes Sense.
    The problem in Ireland is chiefly concerned with time and social change. Let me illustrate In 1954 the parish priest came to visit my parents home. He noticed that there was a copy of “Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence on the sideboard. Without deference to my mother, he took the book and put it in the kitchen stove, and burnt it with the remark “That is the best place for that”. In those days the priest could do that with impunity. My mother ordered him from the house and insisted that he pay her three shillings for the book. At first he refused. She was assertive and he had to pay her. Now the point I make is that that The Catholic Church thinks that it still has that type of power over the people, and the penny has not dropped that the Catholic Church, Bishops and Priests are mistrusted, hated and despised in many parts of Ireland, and the world. This is evident in the stalwart support that is expressed in some posts with archiac and inane reasoning. Who gives a hoot about Thomas More, this is now and the age of superstition is over.Mr Kenny made is clear that there was one law, the law made by the government of the people, not the Church. Not Canon Law, Not Sharia Law, but the Law of the State. That is final.

  • Brendan

    If the priests of Ireland were worth their salt, and I am not suggesting they are not. But if they were, they’d have stood together against the bishops, should stand together against the bishops and tell all they know. Till now they have not done that – cause like the abusers, they too are shifted off – and made to shut up. 

  • Methuselah


    mmmwwahhh  mmmmwaaaaahhh.    Chill people. I

    f God exists and God is really in charge – then God will see to the children first and then deal with the ‘seal’ of the ‘confessional’. Oh ye of little faith. 

  • Newmarch

    I don’t see any problem with this. A priest can go to jail and do his work there. He does not have to break his seal. The law is not forcing him to do so – its his choice if he wishes to do so or not – either way there are repercussions. Life as a priest was never meant to be easy, and this will be a true test of a priests faith.

  • Parasum