GALWAY, Ireland, September 15, 2011 ( – While Irish media reported that a recent statement from a leading Irish bureaucrat meant that the government is “backing down” from plans to force Catholic priests to break the seal of confession, a spokesman for the government has indicated to that this is not the case.

On Sept. 8, Ireland’s Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, had said that the controversy over the confession issue was an “entirely bogus issue” and a “divergence from the central focus” of the legislation.

The legislation, announced in July, would reportedly make it a crime—punishable up to five years in prison—for anyone who failed to report information about child abuse, including if that person is a priest who got the information during a confession.

“The focus of the Bill,” Shatter said in his recent remarks, “is to ensure that where there are what we describe as ‘arrestable crimes,’ which include child sexual abuse committed against a child, and where an individual has material information that would assist the police in the investigation of that crime, that they provide it to the police, unless there is a reasonable excuse not to do so.”

“And this [Confession] is an entire divergence from the central focus of what we’re seeking to address, and I think it would be helpful if those who are focusing on that issue focused to a far greater extent on the protection of children.”

Following Shatter’s statement, in which he reportedly said that the legislation would not contain any specific reference to confession, some Irish press outlets reported that the Irish government had “backed down” on its plans to force priests to reveal details heard in confession. Irish Central called Shatter’s statement an “amazing u-turn” and a “change of opinion.”

However, Nick Donnelly, a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Lancaster, called this conclusion “premature,” and said he was skeptical that the Irish government would back down.

The deacon’s suspicions appeared to have been confirmed today by Andrew Kelly, a spokesman for the Department of Justice and Equality, who told that the “Criminal Justice Bill will apply regardless of any internal rules of any religious grouping.”

The spokesman said that since the “central focus and concern” is “child protection” the legislation must “ensure that allegations of child abuse are reported.”

Today’s statement from the Irish government coincides with statements made in July by Justice Minister Shatter. At that time, Shatter was adamant that the “plan to bring in the new law on withholding information on crimes against children and vulnerable adults will apply regardless of any internal rules of any religious grouping.”

Shatter’s unequivocal position was fully endorsed at the time by Ireland’s prime minister, Enda Kenny, who told reporters that “the law of the land should not be stopped by a crozier or a collar.”

Prime Minister Kenny told reporters at that time that the proposed legislation would contain clauses to jail priests for failing to report information to authorities about minor abuse, and that the legislation would trump the Church’s law prohibiting priests to break the confessional seal.

Today’s statement from the Department of Justice and Equality is also consistent with statements made in July by Frances Fitzgerald, Ireland’s Minister of Children, who ruled out the confessional seal as a case for exemption from the proposed legislation.

“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. I’m not concerned, neither is the Government, about the internal laws, the rules governing any body,” she said.

Shatter’s recent statement appears to indicate is not a change in position, but a change in emphasis, at a time when the idea of forcing priests to break the seal of confession is the subject of mounting resistance from Irish priests, cardinals, and even officials from the Vatican.

One priest, Father Brendan Hoban wrote in his column Western People that a priest “cannot break the seal to save his own life, to protect his good name, to refute a false accusation against himself, even to save the life of another.” A priest knows, he added that “if they reveal anything they have learned during confession to anyone, even under a threat of their own death or that of others, that they would be automatically excommunicated.”

Another Irish priest, Father Paddy O’Kane from Holy Family Church, Ballymagroarty, declared that he would go to jail before breaking the confessional seal.

“It’s at the very core of what a priest is. Priests cannot function if they’re not allowed to keep the seal of confession. Priests will be prepared to go to jail rather than break the seal.”

The position of these priests is being supported by the Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome, the Vatican body that oversees confessions and indulgences.

In a July statement, Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, said: “Ireland can approve all the laws it wants but it should know the church will never allow itself the obligation to betray the confessional to civil authorities.”

At that time, the bishop called it “absurd” that priests might be forced to “betray” what is said in confession.

An Irish cardinal recently spoke out publicly against the proposed legislation in a homily at the Marian Shrine in Knock, Co Mayo.

Calling confession a “sacred and treasured rite,” Cardinal Seán Brady said at the end of August that “freedom to participate in worship and to enjoy the long established rites of the Church is so fundamental that any intrusion upon it is a challenge to very basis of a free society.”

The Cardinal made it clear that any proposal that “undermines” the inviolability of the seal of confession challenges the “right” of every Catholic to “freedom of religion and conscience.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains that out of “respect for persons,” and because of the “delicacy and greatness” of the ministry of the forgiveness of sins, “every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him.”

“He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives,” explains the CCC.

The Irish Government approved the draft of the bill June 3rd 2011. The Bill is scheduled to be published for debate and enactment by the Irish Parliament at the end of this October.

Contact information:

Ireland Minister of Justice
Minister’s Office and Secretary General’s Office
94 St. Stephen’s Green
Dublin 2
Ph: + 353 1 602-8202
Lo-Call: 1890 221-227
email: [email protected]

Ireland Embassy, Canada
Suite1105, 130 Albert Street, Ottawa, Ontario, K1P5G4
Ph: 613-233-6281

Ireland Embassy, United States
2234 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., 20008-2849, Washington D.C.
Ph: 202-462-3939

Ireland Embassy, London
17 Grosvenor Place, London, SW1X 7HR
Ph: +020 7235 2171

Ireland Embassy, Australia
20 Arkana Street, Yarralumla ACT 2600
Ph: +61 2 6214 0000


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