Irish law change could see priests imprisoned

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny Credit European Peoples Party CNA World Catholic News 7 15 11 Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny / | European People's Party

A senior canon lawyer has told CNA he is alarmed by Irish government plans to imprison priests for keeping the seal of confession in sexual abuse cases.

“It will end up with priests being put in jail,” said Father Paul Hayward, editor of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland’s journal Abstracts.

“We have to get greater clarity as to what exactly is being proposed but, certainly, no priest who values their priesthood would ever break the seal of confession. This could make martyrs of a lot of Irish priests.”

Fr. Hayward’s comments come on July 15, one day after Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny promised to introduce a new law that would jail priests for up to five years if they failed to tell the authorities about crimes of sexual abuse disclosed during confessions.

“The law of the land should not be stopped by a crozier or a collar,” Kenny told journalists July 14. 

Such a proposition runs contrary to the internal law of the Catholic Church known as Canon Law. It says of confession that “the sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason,” with the punishment for such a breach being “a latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.”

Earlier this week a judicial inquiry into how the Diocese of Cloyne in County Cork mishandled alleged incidents of abuse, found nine cases between 1996 and 2005 which “very clearly” should have been reported to the authorities but were not.  The inquiry – led by Judge Yvonne Murphy – said this was the “greatest failure” of the diocese.  

The Cloyne Report also suggested that the diocese’s apparent disregard for the Irish Church’s 1996 guidelines on sexual abuse was aided by the decision by the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops to brand the document as merely “study guidelines.” The effect of this, said the report, was “to strengthen the position of those who dissented from the official stated Irish Church policy.” 

Last night Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore, met with the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, to discuss the issue. Gilmore described the 1996 decision as “absolutely unacceptable” and “inappropriate” and is now demanding an explanation from the Vatican. 

“I want to know why this state, with which we have diplomatic relations, issued a communication, the effect of which was that very serious matter of the abuse of children in this country was not reported to the authorities,” he told reporters after the meeting July 14.

In response, Archbishop Leanza said he would deliver a copy of the Cloyne Report to the Vatican and said he too was “distressed … by the failures in assuring the protection of children within the Church despite all the good work that has been done.”

The Foreign Minister did not set a deadline for the Vatican to respond.

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