Dublin's Auxiliary Bishop Raymond W. Field says priests must maintain the confidentiality of the confessional, which may be threatened by a proposed law requiring mandatory reporting of abuse.
“The seal of the confessional is inviolable as far as I am concerned, and that's the end of the matter,” Bishop Field said in comments reported by the Irish Independent newspaper on April 26.
Remarks made the previous day by Irish Justice Minister Alan Shatter suggested that priests could be bound by requirements of the sex abuse reporting bill. Due to be introduced in the legislature later this year, the bill threatens up to ten years in jail for those who fail to report sex crimes.
“I would expect 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 (police),” said Shatter. He noted that existing laws already require reporting of other crimes without exempting priests.
Church law, however, declares that it is “absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent … in any manner and for any reason.” A priest who directly violates the seal is automatically excommunicated and can only be readmitted to the Church by a direct act of the Vatican.
In the wake of Shatter's remarks, it remains unclear whether or not his draft legislation would directly conflict with the seal of confession.
The Department of Justice indicated in a Wednesday night statement that priests' right to secrecy could be maintained in civil cases. But it added that the “extent to which the privilege can be relied on in a criminal case is unclear.”
Meanwhile, the Association of Catholic Priests – a group known for questioning Church teaching – appears to be standing with the Irish Catholic hierarchy in this case, again any threat to the confessional seal.
“I certainly wouldn't be willing to break the seal of confession for anyone – Alan Shatter particularly,” said Father Sean McDonagh, a founding member of the association.
The priest also observed that an obligation to break the seal was “something that cannot be enforced” in practice, due to the anonymity of most confessions.