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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.

  • lady guest

    “Summis Desiderantes Affectibus” 1484. An edict from Pope Innocent 8th

  • Anonymous

    Absolutely unacceptable and if they pass it priests must refuse to comply.

  • Lee

    Always makes me wonder, was Ireland ever catholic or did it only start becoming Catholic when the ‘Brutal’ British were not wiling to move from Ireland as in the Irish (whoever they were) had to find cultural monnikers which differentiate them from otherwise kith and kin Brits, thus they have seemed to have used the Catholic Church as an ‘ethnarcy’ of sorts then when Ireland became a supposed ‘republic’ preceded to water down the Holy Faith by imparting ‘its’ own wants on the church, thus the church became inculturated on an unimaginable level and became a damn sight too close to Irish culture and governance. Just my view by the way.

  • Andre’

    The government in Ireland should understand the divine aspect in the sacrament of confession. There is a spiritual dimension involved and not a dialogue between two human beings. 

  • Mal

    Well, in that case, they should jail mothers, teachers, relatives, neighbours etc who do not report child abuse in their homes or neighbourhoods.

  • Fr Levi

    ‘No one is above the law of the land’ – and what of the Irish Constitution? Article 44 protects the practise of religion. Is that no longer the law of the land?

  • Robert Kovacs

    What about an Irish girl who has an abortion then confesses to a priest. Should the priest inform the law that a baby has just been murdered. And here is the murderers name and address. Would she than get the death penalty by the state. 

  • Robert Kovacs

    And like it has already been said. With a law like this, do they really think that criminals would be stupid enough to confess. I highly doubt it. Why not just go to the police station and confess.

  • Anonymous

    I would not worry too much about this typical bluster or blarney.  I am not sure a priest’s failure to report to the civil authorities the confession of a crime under the seal of the confessional, is in any way exempt from civil law consequences in many or most Western states but it is very difficult to imagine any circumstances in which these could arise.  No priest would ever answer any questions about the content of a confession and unless the place of the confession was bugged, no prosecution would ensue.  Even if the place were bugged no judge would ever admit the evidence nor would the human rights law permit this.  I do not think anyone would risk a human rights violation by taking it any further.

  • Jeannine

    You’re absolutely correct. There’s something in the Irish psyche that gravitates towards extremism, IMO. They needed to be extremists to survive the brutal yrs of famine & discrimination in their own country. 

    Yet they can go to the other extreme as we see in this article and in their history. For example, the Irish were reverting back to their pagan ways in the 1200s & before which resulted in Pope Hadrian IV giving English Henry II permission to incorporate Ireland into his realm for reforming purposes (Laudabiliter). Obviously there were alot of reasons why this was done—->English pope, English king. Yet at the time, the immorality of Ireland was well known across Europe. The reforming pope was obliged to do something. He did which changed the course of Irish history.

  • Audiosancto
  • Siobhan

    If you made a generalisation about Muslims similar to the one you have just made about the Irish you would probably be in need of police protection, presuming you were foolish enough to utter it in a public place. Without the Irish I think there would be no Catholicism in the UK, every parish has a backbone of Irish people who put their shoulder to the wheel. This whole issue of child abuse is being submerged in rhetoric about tradition versus modern, politics and nationalism when the simple truth is that it is the result of turning away from the very essence of what is Christ like. No matter how much any individual may claim to love the church there is no denying that some people in the church, not the majority but not a few either, did unspeakable evil. To deny it and carry on as before is in my opinion being Islamic for we all know that abuse goes on in that religion but no one dares to point it out with evidence. If you love Christ proclaim it, do not think you are defending Him by standing up for an institution.

  • Anonymous

    “Without the Irish I think there would be no Catholicism in the UK”

    Not strictly true. No doubt it would be smaller, but there’s always been an English Catholic community. Anyway, this is a digression. Undoubtedly child abuse is unacceptable, but the state seeking to arrogate to itself the right to violate the seal of the confessional is also an outrage.

  • Froh

    The seal of the confessional is a part of the Catholic Church’s fraudulent claim to diplomatic immunity.  It is a short step from saying that one has a higher loyalty to God, to saying that one has no responsibility to obey the law of the state.  What some priests really want is for child rapists to be subject only to a mild reprimand from the bishop, and no other penalty.  

  • RJ

    An interesting question: what extent do cultural/national factors play in helping to preserve religious affiliation? Perhaps it is easier to maintain loyalty to one’s faith if the oppressor is a foreigner (This question also arises with respect to Poland), but not so easy when the oppressors are of the same nation (e.g. English ‘Reformation’). In either case, there is room for genuine faith, but there is a risk of confusion in the former case between one’s faith and one’s nationality/culture.

  • Anonymous

    Diplomatic immunity has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with it.

  • Jeannine

    Madam, I apologize if I led you the impression that I was equating Muslims with the Irish. Far from it. There’s no comparison. 

    Yet, how many countries do you know have The Pledge, thinking about passing a law that threatens priests to divulge information obtained during Confession priest? Or how about having the majority of the population being practicing Catholics in the 1980s & then within a decade, a small proportion are only practicing, & not because of a totalitarian government takeover? But some of the most devout & holy Catholics come from Ireland. To me Ireland is a very unique country.Unfortunately you are wrong about no Catholicism in the UK without the Irish. The Irish were converting the island from the north but obviously not fast enough. Pope Gregory the Great sent the future St Augustine of Canterbury to the south. He was either a German or a Frank.

  • Jeannine

    Your question is definitely food for thought. Can not one’s faith be part of the nationality/culture of the country? If I’m not mistaken, wasn’t Pope Benedict XVI  insistent upon placing Christianity in the EU constitution stating it was part of the cultural formation of Europe? Didn’t JP2 say something along those lines too?

  • penny

    Absolution is conditional on having firm purpose of amendment and doing the penance given by the priest. Part of the  penance in these cases would obviously be to submit to the law of the land if the law has been broken.  Nuff said.

  • RJ

    I would venture to suggest that culture can be informed by faith. Culture can be an expression of faith, but there can’t be a complete identification. That way lies an unattractive presumption and complacency: ‘I’m of such and such a nationality so I’m obviously Catholic and I can take it for granted’ – cultural Catholicism – which hides all manner of inadequacies and dark aspects that don’t get faced up to.

  • penny

    Would Ireland be in better condition if it had embraced the reformation? 
    From an outsider’s point of view, the Irish Church has been battered by the abuse scandal but still has more faithful, pure priests and more faithful followers than your average Northern European Nation. 
    My own country is on the brink of introducing Euthenasia under the guise of “assisted suicide”. 
    Every priest who abuses others must be brought to book, but let’s start from there and build what Pope Benedict called a “smaller but more pure” Church.   Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  • Honeybadger

    The Irish Government has NO RIGHT WHATSOEVER to push this crazy, insane law. It is an ill-thought-out knee jerk reaction to a crisis which will further pour oil on troubled waters.

    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. 

    If pushed through, it will be counter-productive on all counts. What next? Bugging confessionals? Gardai dressing up as priests in confessionals? INSANE.

    If a priest or other person confesses to child abuse, it is up to the priest to give a stark choice to the penitent: If you don’t give yourself up to the police - repeating exactly what you told me just now - then I will withold absolution. Your choice. No compromise.

    How the heck would the priest know the penitent if confession is not face-to-face but behind a screen?

    The Irish Government should concentrate on sorting the sorry, pathetic state of their economy and country instead of wasting time bullying soft targets like priests – the majority of who are suffering enough because of the heinous sins of their fellow brethren.

  • Honeybadger

    Spot. On.

  • Patrick O’Malley

    Priests don’t have the conviction that the congregation thinks they have.  They certainly won’t go to jail for their beliefs.  They don’t even believe enough to stop raping children or lying about it.

  • Honeybadger

    Doesn’t Enda Kenny realise that if a priest reveals what he has heard in confession, it is instant excommunication for the priest? Ha ha, ha – then there will be no priests left to minister to the remaining faithful if the priests are lily-livered enough to give into state-sponsored bullying.

    I can bet my boots that if the Irish TDs and ministeres had their confessionals bugged, what would be revealed would put the affairs of Rupert Murdoch and News International in the shade.

    Then again, the whole rot set in with the Irish church because 1. the Irish government allowed these things to happen and failed to act and 2. The Irish Heirarchy thought they were ABOVE the authority of the Vatican and acted as such.

    The only exception to the rule is Archbishop Dairmuid Martin of Dublin, who speaks the truth and cops for the lot.


  • Patrick O’Malley

    Yep.  Walk out of the confessional with the other priest and bring him to jail.  It’s pretty simple.  I don’t know why Catholics try so hard to make this complicated, and to give these pedophile predators some way to escape.

  • Patrick O’Malley

    When the religion allows child rape, like the Catholic church clearly does, then it’s not a religion anymore. 

    In this case, the Catholic church has become an entity that raped children (a crime in any civilized land), covered it up (a crime in any civilized land), and of course, they ignore the victims of child rape (contrary to any civilized religion).When you commit and conceal crimes against children, and crimes against humanity, you stop getting protected by Article 44.  The people that wrote the article never thought that people would fight to protect a pedophile protection program.

  • Patrick O’Malley

    True, but they don’t organize and protect their pedophiles like the Catholic church does.

  • Patrick O’Malley

    Wrong.  The Catholic church should understand that they can’t get away with concealing child rape anymore, and countries should do whatever it takes to rip the truth out of the Catholic church.  This has been going on for decades (at least), and every new report (including this one) continues to prove a massive, reprehensible cover up, and no respect whatsoever for children.  It’s organized child rape and cover up.

  • Patrick O’Malley


  • penny

    The Sacrament of reconciliation is, as it says on the tin, about being reconciled to God. 
    As the rite says… but you already know the rite, don’t you?. 
    If someone approaches the Sacrament in cynicism/ ill will/ bad faith/ no faith, don’t you think it’s up to God to deal with that? 
    You speak as though the Sacrament is a magic wand.  You obviously don’t believe in the Sacrament, nor understand it.  It is not a get-out-of-jail-free card by any stretch of the imagination; on the contrary, it has the power to transform lives.  This is not to say it negates the law of the land; OBVIOUSLY NOT. 

  • Honeybadger

    You are unbelievable.

  • Honeybadger

    You anti-catholic people are soooooo predictable!

    A hospital near me is under investigation because of deliberate tampering of saline drips which resulted in the murder of 4 people. Do I go round to every doctor, nurse, surgeon and call them murderers? No, because the vast majority of those in the medical profession are brilliant.

    It’s the twisted minority that lets the side down.

    To tar all priests and Roman Catholics with the same brush smacks of the usual boring chip-on the-shoulder, unreasonable, irrational attitude to be expected from people like you.

    Let’s face it – you hate Roman Catholics. Go on, admit it. Stop frapping about and say it. You know you want to. What are you afraid of?

    Child sex abuse goes on in every corner of mostly secular society. It happens with religious from other faiths. Get your facts right before you bash the bejapers out of your keyboard.

    Sorry to disappoint you but the Roman Catholic Church is not in the number one spot of top sex offenders…

    Please stop riding on the backs of the child abuse victims as an excuse to vent your diseased spleen on the message board of a Roman Catholic Newspaper. It is unpleasant. You are not helping. So… go away!

  • Honeybadger

    It’s laughable, really. If this stupid law is passed, it would hinder rather than help the situation.

    Enda Kenny thinks he is Bismarck…

  • James Callender

    You certainly know nothing of the history of the reformation in England, ever heard of the Padley martyrs? they did nothing wrong other than celebrate the Catholic Mass and were hung in Derby for their beliefs.  How dare you spout such ill informed rubbish?  Priests died for the mass, for the Church, for the truth.  It is sad that you are suggesting that all priests are without conviction and that all priests are padeophiles, well that is as sensible as saying that all Irish people are corrupt are all paedophiles.  I suggest that you take your spineless vitriol and dump it in the Irish Sea.  It is no wonder that Ireland is in the state it is in with comments like that from its citizens.

    I am guessing that you have never heard about removing the plank from your own eye before pointing out the speck in your brother’s eye?  Rank hypocrisy.  I hope that you weren’t being serious about what you said.

  • James Callender

    Wrong on all counts.
    The Catholic Church doesn’t allow child rape, and since when has it stopped being a religion?   Upon the rock of St. Peter, the gates of hell (even Irish ones) will not prevail against it, that has been the timeless truth for 2000 years and will never change.  The church has endured far greater persecution in the past, including in England, and has emerged the stronger… the masses of lapsed Irish are perfectly free to start their own religion (perhaps the Religion of EU Bankruptcy?) or just revert to paganism, the church will welcome them back with open arms but not if they come with a spirit of hatred.

  • Laura M Bernard

    Allowing the Gov to be able to command the Church to “break the sacred seal of Confesssion” that a Priest vows to God to uphold is completely outrageous! The Sacrament of Confession is not just to “confess” to God with the Priest as intercessor. When a person confesses their sin (s) they are not only admitting to another human being, the Priest; who may instruct or admonish, but may not “judge” someone; the entire purpose of the Sacrament of Confession is to both confess sin & to make every possible human effort “to turn away from that particular sin for good.” Since child molestation is an extremely serious crime & extremely serious sin within the Eyes of God Himself; the person who is guilty of doing so is asking pardon from God; but, he or she is also asking Help from the Priest. Otherwise, they would never be confessing this particular sin in the first place! By keeping the Sacred Seal of Confession, not only will a Priest not be violating his vow of not revealing what is said in the Confessional; but also, someone who has this terrible sin of sexual child abuse & truly feels horrible about it; this person will feel that there is a safe person & method of obtaining help & God’s forgiveness; even the miracle of recovering from any desire to ever do such a thing again. Even people who commit crimes like this are not turned away by God if they are asking for forgiveness & Divine help; plus, the Priests suggestions of help-even if it is to be to never be around children or near them while not having an escort or person to make sure they never commit this crime again. Enda Kenny, Ireland’s prime Minister stated that “canon law should not supersede state law.” Does he truly understand what he is actually stating, & the implications of such a belief? What he is actually saying (whether he realizes it or not) is that “All state law supersedes the laws of the Catholic Church.” He is, in reality, implying (not saying this is intentional) that the at least Irish Catholic Church is a Government run entity. So, in fact, there would be absolutely no “separation of Church & State.’ The Catholic Churches in Ireland would no longer be able to even make any of their own rules or even “exist” anymore. The State would be able to tell the Catholic Church in Ireland to do whatever they want it to do, not do; say, or not say. The State would in fact, be considered “God” Himself; and, we all should know what this is called: Communism! Yes, even the State has no power to deny a person the right to formally, through a Church Sacrament, to ask the forgiveness of God for his or her sins; the right to ask the Priest for some sort of help; and especially not to deny them the Right of Absolution which God gives the person through the Priest; and, their sincere desire to “turn away from this very serious mortal sin.” If there were no one, to put it in the category of “safe” to confess to another human being (which takes much courage). people who commit these acts would give up on the idea of ever being forgiven & perhaps participate in even more heinous acts. I hope that people can understand the logic in what I have posted here. I am from the United States; I have never been to Ireland; but, I desperately want to visit your most beautiful country & your most hospitable & friendly people! Thank you for reading my post.

  • Anonymous

    So after almost a century of independence and another century of emancipation, is Catholicism going to be illegal in Ireland again?

  • Jack Hughes

    St Thomas More when he died stated ‘I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.

    Loyalty to God is higher than loyalty to the state, Cannon Law is a higher authority than civil law and if in any case civil law contradicts Cannon Law, then civil law must bend to accomodate Cannon Law

  • Fr Thomas Poovathinkal


    Fr.Thomas Poovathinkal

  • Fr Thomas Poovathinkal



  • Fr Thomas Poovathinkal








    Fr Thomas Poovathinkal

  • Honeybadger

    That’s a pertinent question. Indeed, a VERY pertinent question…

  • Honeybadger

    Thanks for your post. If the Irish Government goes ahead with something like a state-sponsored Church doing its bidding (God forbid) then, it would smack of what is happening in China… with the True Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church loyal to Christ’s Vicar growing faster and taking to going underground, imprisonment or death…

    The Irish have forgotten their history already…

  • Anonymous

    Satan is certainly exercising his fury right now against once-Catholic Ireland and he is using his instruments in the Irish government to do his will. It’s a shadow of the country it used to be, now a mere slave to its godless EU creditors.

  • Laura M. Bernard

    Thank you, Honeybadger! I love Ireland (it is so beautiful); and I love all the Irish people & how friendly & kind they are that I have met that have come to the US. I believe Ireland will always be Catholic somehow. I feel there is a special blessing of God upon the country. I know for a sure that even though, as people have stated here that Ireland has wandered far from their Catholic faith; the country Has to be more Catholic than these United States that I live in. We desperately need your prayers! Things are so bad here in the US; most especially, morally, & the pure Evil of those who are governing us-we Catholics are in a desperate state. I want to get out of here before all Hell breaks loose. It could be any day or time now. I am Native American; Cheyenne & Blackfeet; French Canadian & Irish. I beg all Catholics to go to & to Pray the Rosary for people to convert back to God. I have been following the messages of the Blessed Mother in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Hertzegovenia for years. I confess myself that I have not prayed my 15 Decades (Yes, it is possible to do-in one sitting!) for quite a while. I feel that God cannot bear to look upon this Earth & see what is going on. i know, that I know, that I know, He has not left us (He promised never to leave us); however, He cannot bear to look, hear, & see anymore what is going on on this planet.Therefore, just as planned, He has put His Mother (who is not our Judge as He is; but, she is a Divinely Created Human). I have read every single message that the Blessed Mother has given at Medjugorje for over 20 years (you can buy the books of them on the site). Very recently, she has said, “Be prepared my children” In over 20 years she has not ever stated anything like that before. However; bad things & people, weather & even Wars themselves can be stopped by “Praying the Rosary.” I beg Priests everywhere to never preach another sermon without teaching others that “We must pray the Rosary.” At least, Priests here in the USA have forgotten the Rosary; however, the tide is turning! Our Lady is “Our Light, Our Sweetness, & “Our Hope.” God has given us over to Her to teach us His ways. She never advocates for Herself; but, she always begs us to repent, return to Her Son, & to Pray, Pray, Pray the Rosary for poor sinners & don’t forget the Souls in Purgatory. If we pray for these Souls who are on their way to Heaven already; but, must suffer in order to be purified to stand before an All Holy, All Omnipotent, All Just, & All Pure God; these very souls will be given Great Power to Help Us Here on Earth! Please do not ever forget them! No matter what happens, the Blessed Mother “promises” us that Her Immaculate Heart Will Triumph & God will do away with all evil; every tear will be dried from our eyes; & there will be a New Heaven & a New Earth! The world will not end no matter what. It is & will continue to change (weather, disasters wars etc). However, Remember the Words of The Our Father Prayer! It ends with :”World Without End; Amen! Please “PRAY THE ROSARY” & YOURSELF & OTHERS WILL GET THROUGH ALL OF THIS! PLEASE VISIT: They have a store on there also. I made a substantial donation (for me) even under my circumstances; and, I was Blessed to receive a wooden Rosary that was blessed by an apparition of the Blessed Mother Herself! Everytime she appears they have her bless whole boxes of these! Remember: Pray, Pray, Pray! She is Our hope alright because she has said that she has Held Back Her Son’s Hand ( from the just anger of God) for so long from this world (sinners). Even though we are sinners; she always refers to us as Poor Sinners & has such compassion & love for us. Remember, she is not our judge nor is she God; however, she is His Mother & Intercedes to Jesus for us constantly! Pray the Rosary, Pray for Priests (in all reality, less than 1% of all Priests have ever been involved in abuse); Pary for The Catholic Church; & I pray for Ireland, & Poland to uphold Catholicism no matter what!

  • Jamesmaherne

    so this is the Ireland the men of 1916 gave their lives for? this is the Ireland in which thousands of starving Catholics refused Protestant soup, this is the Ireland of Mass Rocks,I cannot beleive my fellow country men
    could attack the Catholic Church with such venom.Behind recent events is a Spiritual battle an d even the
    ancient Sacred Seal of Confession is not safe,if the Catholic Church is in the dock in Ireland so is every
    social worker,every Gardai,every member of the Irish Goverment,I bet most of those attacking the Church
    enjoyed free Catholic education!!and what about the countless Catholic Irish missionaries around the world
    who have worked tirelessly to make the lives of millions of the poor better and when the people are attacked
    who are the first to run away the government lakies.Enda Kenedy and Co are a disgrace,read your Gospel
    the Church is for sinners” let Him without sin cast the first stone” This is the same government that welcomes
    legal relationships that mock true Marriage and wink at abortion the greatest form of child abuse if there ever was one! Faith of Our Fathers living still in spite of faithless politicions!!

  • AgingPapist

    Priests must always be prepared to go to prison. They always have been prepared to face punishment by the state. So they need to stop bellyaching. They and their bishops are not above the law.

  • AgingPapist

    Then jail them.

  • AgingPapist

    The Church’s “culture” remains.  The bishops and priests tried to insulate the Church from the effects of a changing society. They’re reaping the bitter fruits of this today. From here on in the Irish government will treat the Catholic Church as just  another agency of state.  About time too.