DUBLIN, July 19, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A group of Irish priests has announced that the country’s Catholic clergy will refuse to comply with any law requiring them to break the seal of the confession. The statement of defiance comes in response to proposed legislation announced by the government late last week, under which priests could face up to five years in prison for failure to disclose sexual crimes against minors admitted by penitents.
The Irish government said that under the legislation confessions would not be exempt from rules on mandatory reporting of child abuse, claiming that the move is a response to Ireland’s clerical abuse crisis. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said that the Catholic Church’s canon law would not be allowed to supersede state law.
However, Fr. PJ Madden, a spokesman for the Association of Catholic Priests, told the UK’s Catholic Herald that priests will urge a penitent who confesses to a crime to go to police, but said that the sacramental seal of confession is “above and beyond all else.”
“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.
David Quinn, a popular Irish columnist and commentator on religion and director of the think-tank the Iona Institute, wrote that such a law would be “unprecedented.” It would, “make us the one and only country in the Western world to have such a law,” he said.
Quinn also pointed to a practical consequence of mandating that priests break the seal of confession: “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.”
But on Friday, Irish Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald said the issue was “non-negotiable” and that the sacrament of confession could not be used as a defense to claim exemption from the new rules.
“If there is a law in the land, it has to be followed by everybody. There are no exceptions, there are no exemptions,” she said. “I’m not concerned, neither is the Government, about the internal laws or rules governing any body.”
She added, “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.”
As of this writing, there has been no response from the Irish Catholic bishops; however, an inside source told LSN that the Vatican is gravely concerned with the proposal. In addition to concerns over the damage to the practice of the faith in Ireland, questions are being raised in Rome about enforcement and possible entrapment of priests.
“The only way to enforce this law would be to have people go into confessionals carrying a voice recorder and make false confessions of criminal abuse of minors,” said the source.
The source, an expert in canon law, said that even if Ireland’s anti-clericalist government does not resort to such measures, the country’s tabloid press, looking for sensational news stories, “certainly will.” Under the Church’s canon law, any priest who breaks the seal of confession is subject to automatic excommunication, the Church’s heaviest penalty.
In civil law, the source said, priests are at a great disadvantage when accused of crimes that involve the confessional. Not only can a priest not disclose criminal acts, in most circumstances he is bound not to mention to anyone, including the penitent, any part of anything he has heard in confession. The prohibition is so all-encompassing that a priest may not even reveal whether has heard a particular person’s confession.
This, the source said, leaves the priest in a nearly impossible position when called as a witness in courts. “A priest in such a situation can say only, ‘I can’t say.’”
Legislation to force priests to break the seal would be “unenforceable,” “impractical,” and “a distraction from the main issue,” said the chief executive of the Catholic Church’s child protection watchdog, the National Board for Safeguarding Children, Ian Elliott.
Since the rise of Christian civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire, western jurisprudence has recognized the futility of demanding that priests break the seal. Currently, in the U.S. the seal of confession is specifically protected under two constitutional amendments. In Ireland, the seal has been protected by centuries-old legal custom and precedent.
The Irish Times quoted Dr. Gerard Whyte, associate professor of law at Trinity College Dublin, who said that the seal enjoys a measure of protection under civil law.
It is “well settled in Irish common law that a member of the clergy of any denomination may not be compelled in law to disclose the content of any conversation between him/her and a parishioner unless the parishioner agrees to such disclosure,” he said.
Popular UK priest-blogger, Fr. Ray Blake, wrote that such a law would effectively make it impossible for Catholics in Ireland to practice their faith.
“Ireland will be the only non-totalitarian state to attack the Church in such a way,” Fr. Blake wrote. “Now we can look forward to priest martyrs to the confessional.”
“The problem is of course that only the truly repentant are likely to confess directly to such a sin, the unrepentant stay away from the confessional.”
Fr. Blake also brought up the issue of enforcement, saying, “Do they really expect the priest sitting in a dark Dublin confessional listening to an anonymous voice, who hears such a confession, to run round to the penitents side of the confessional and photograph the anonymous penitent on their iPhone and text the photograph to the authorities?”
He added, “How far is a priest supposed to enquire into people’s sexual proclivities? Will the State take control and issue guidelines?”
The Code of Canon Law, paragraphs 983 and 983 say, “The sacramental seal is inviolable. Accordingly, it is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion.
“The confessor is wholly forbidden to use knowledge acquired in confession to the detriment of the penitent, even when all danger of disclosure is excluded.
“A person who is in authority may not in any way, for the purpose of external governance, use knowledge about sins which has at any time come to him from the hearing of confession.”