DUBLIN, April 30, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The Irish Justice Minister has evoked outrage from the Catholic Church by proposing 5-year prison sentences for priests who fail to report sex abuse of minors if they hear about it in the confessional.

Alan Shatter’s mandatory reporting bill, introduced Wednesday, will make it a criminal offence to fail to disclose information to police which would “assist in prosecuting a person who commits a serious offence against a child or vulnerable adult.” The bill confirms fears that the government of Ireland will attempt to force priests to break the seal of the confessional, an idea that caused an uproar when it bruited about the Dail last summer.

A statement from the Vatican last August made it clear that under no circumstances whatever may a priest reveal what he learns in confession, even if a penitent confesses to criminal activity.

“Ireland can pass whatever laws it wants,” said Archbishop Girotti, regent of the apostolic penitentiary, to Il Foglio, “but it must know that the Church will never submit to forcing confessors to inform civil officials.”

Cardinal Seán Brady, the primate of Ireland, condemned the government’s plans, calling them “challenge to the very basis of a free society.”

“The inviolability of the seal of confession is so fundamental to the very nature of the Sacrament that any proposal that undermines that inviolability is a challenge to the right of every Catholic to freedom of religion and conscience,” Cardinal Brady said to a group of pilgrims at the Shrine of Knock.

To date, no formal statement has been issued on the subject by the Irish Catholic bishops in defence of the Church’s ancient legal privilege. Auxiliary Bishop Raymond W. Field of Dublin was quoted in the Irish Independent last week saying only, “The seal of the confessional is inviolable as far as I am concerned, and that’s the end of the matter.”

Until this bill, the common law of the Republic of Ireland recognised the priest-penitent privilege, as do all countries where the Catholic Church operates legally.
The new law will apply to all members of the public, not only the ones who work with children. Any person failing to report could face a minimum jail term of five years.

The Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald confirmed that the law would apply without exceptions, saying, “We haven’t made any exclusions or any exemptions; everybody is under an obligation to report.”

“Child protection is everyone’s responsibility. Everyone. Every club, society, organisation, religious organisation, educational establishment and medical facility that works with children,” she said.

Shatter backed up the assertion, saying that the bill contains legal defences for parents and others where a victim requests that the details not be disclosed. These are intended to protect victims and to provide a defence for those legitimately acting in “the best interest of a child or vulnerable adult.”

“This Bill should not deter victims of serious offences from seeking help and assistance they need in addressing the harm and damage caused to them,” he said. The Irish Times reported that Shatter had criticised the interest in the bill’s impact on the priesthood and the confessional seal, calling it a “media obsession.”

“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),” Shatter added.

When the government first made the threat last July, David Quinn, a writer on religion and director of Iona Institute think-tank, wrote that such a law would be “unprecedented,” and that it would be unlikely to work. 

It would, “make us the one and only country in the Western world to have such a law,” he said.

“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,” Quinn said.

The seal of confession is the oldest and most sacrosanct of the disciplines of the Catholic priesthood, one that is so absolute that historical references to priests breaking it are extremely rare through the Church’s 2000-year history. Priests on both sides of the Church’s current liberal/conservative rift are united over the inviolability of the seal.

A spokesman for the liberal-progressivist priest organisation, Association of Catholic Priests, said that the group’s members intend to ignore the government’s orders to violate the seal. Fr. Sean McDonagh told the Irish Independent, “I certainly wouldn’t be willing to break the seal of confession for anyone – Alan Shatter particularly.”

The Catholic Church is clear on whether a priest may reveal anything he learns from a penitent in confession. The Code of Canon Law, (983 §1) says, “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.”

A priest who is found to have broken the seal faces excommunication “latae sententiae,” which means automatically, a penalty that cannot be lifted except by the Pope himself. It is understood that in such a circumstance, a priest who has once broken the “inviolable” seal, will never be allowed to hear confessions again.

A priest is normally assumed to be responsible for recommending to the penitent that he should turn himself over to the authorities in criminal matters.