Priests: We won’t break seal of confession to report sex abuse

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Thursday April 26 2012

By Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor

CATHOLIC priests will defy a new law that requires them to report sexual abuse disclosed to them in the confession box — despite the threat of 10-year jail sentences.

It came after Justice Minister Alan Shatter confirmed the mandatory reporting requirement would apply to priests hearing confession.

Fr Sean McDonagh of the Association of Catholic Priests, which represents 800 clergymen, warned last night: “I certainly wouldn’t be willing to break the seal of confession for anyone — Alan Shatter particularly.”

And Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin Raymond Field said: “The seal of the confessional is inviolable as far as I am concerned, and that’s the end of the matter.”

It puts the clergy on a direct collision course with Mr Shatter because new laws oblige every person to report suspected sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults to gardai.

Mr Shatter said last night: “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.”

His draft legislation, which is due to be introduced later this year, has already drawn a strong response from the church.

It has excommunicated priests in the past for revealing details of confessions.

The Catholic Church has always insisted it has no problem with the reporting of child physical and sexual abuse allegations to the authorities — except when the information is given during confession.

The auxiliary bishop of Dublin was just one leading church figure who moved to stress that priests would not be co-operating with the requirement to report sexual abuse information given during confession.

The Association of Catholic Priests said the legislation was a foolish move that could not be enforced.

Its spokesman, Fr McDonagh, recalled how a New Zealand Columban priest, Francis Douglas, was tortured to death by the Japanese during World War Two because he refused to reveal information received in confession about the Filipino guerrillas.

“He is held up to us as a model of how you deal with this extraordinary sacrament. You shouldn’t put into legislation something that cannot be enforced.

“It makes a mockery of the legislation,” he said.

Fr McDonagh pointed out that confessions were held in private so that priests did not know who was in the confessional box.

And he questioned whether the mandatory reporting requirement would stop even one case of child sexual abuse.

It is the latest flashpoint between the Government and the Catholic Church, following the highly publicised row over Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s criticism of the Vatican for failing to co-operate with clerical sexual abuse inquiries last year.

He declared that canon law would not be allowed to supersede state law. The Irish Embassy to the Vatican was subsequently closed “for budgetary reasons”.


Mr Shatter said the controversy over the confessional was a “side issue” because the Murphy and Cloyne reports into clerical sex abuse had never mentioned it as the cause of the problem.

He pointed out that the main issue had been the failure of the Catholic Church authorities to act on warnings from victims — and the movement of priests accused of abuse from parish to parish.

“As someone who doesn’t frequent confession, I don’t know what information people share in confessions.

“But I don’t think anyone has a substantial knowledge about numbers of paedophiles sharing their exploits through the confessional and being given absolution for it,” he said.

Mr Shatter pointed out that there was also no exemption for the confessional in legislation passed back in 1998 requiring mandatory reporting of offences such as murder, kidnapping and bank robberies.

He said he was not aware of any priest being prosecuted under this legislation.

Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald also added that criminal justice legislation passed last year required anyone with knowledge of white-collar crime to report it.

“And there’s no exemptions in relation to the confessional,” she said.

The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference said it welcomed the fact that the State was putting the ‘Children First’ child protection guidelines into law — which it had been following since 1996.

– Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor

8 Responses to Priests: We won’t break seal of confession to report sex abuse

  1. Sylvia says:

    I struggled with this one some months ago. Here is where I am at:

    I do believe in the inviolability of the Seal of Confession, however, I also believe that is essential that all priests refuse to give absolution to those who confess that they have sexually abused a child until such time as they, the penitents, have shown true contrition, and as far as I’m concerned true contrition in this instance entails the abuser turning himself in to authorities. Further to that, the truly contrite penitent should be willing to speak to the confessor outside confession in which case the priest-confessor is no longer bound by the seal.

    I believe too that there is a need to educate the public so that one and all know that there will be no absolution for those who confess abuse and are not willing to show contrition by doing the right thing.

    As for victims who tell a priest during confession that they have been abused I believe it is essential that priests try to encourage victims to speak to them outside of confession (with explanation as to why), and also encourage them to identify the abuser and report the abuse.

  2. deeplybetrayed says:

    Good points, Sylvia

  3. Larry Green says:

    Secular law is not based on Catholic dogma. If these criminals (proposed) fail to report an abuser under any condition and that defiant act of negligence can be later proven in a court of law , then the priest who had foreknowledge that this pedophile is on the lose while innocent children await there fate then that guilty priest should get the same jail time if not more than the active molesting predator he was in deed protecting. I would go one step farther and say the possibility of negotiating in some form should not be ruled out at sentencing for any pedophile who can prove he told other priests (in or out of confession) and they did nothing. As it stands now and in the past any pedophile clergy could have been persuaded -by a priest who had knowledge obtained from a victim who complained- to take cover and to seal lips under a “seal” of confession.

    This is a terrible injustice and I don’t know how they have been allowed to get away with this pathetic ‘loophole’ for so long.

    This so called ‘sacrament’ is believed by every priest as important for it’s psychological “ therapeutic” effects simply because the “sinner“ rids himself of guilt ( which btw probably not a good prescription for a pedophile) by telling another human being what he has done wrong, a claim that no doubt (in light of the present controversy) most would now deny.

    I cannot for the life of me understand why so many “struggle” with this and especially in this day and age where very very few Catholics believe there is any benefit whatsoever in telling a priest their sins. The attitude of most Catholics is “ I don’t have to tell God my sins through a priest or anybody else, He already knows what they are and only God has the authority to absolve them.” It is no longer a practice ,a “ sacrament ” , that the secular segment of society concerned with the protection of children can afford or trust the Catholic church to treat holy, sacredly , with prudence or free from corruption. If some Catholics “struggle” with this issue then those same Catholics should have no problem understanding how that for the non-catholic members of our society (who are governed by the same laws of the land) the negation of a law to compel priests to report the confession of a pedophile is based on primitive concepts of psychology, equality and religion.

  4. Baspuit says:

    Now if the pedophile is another priest, confesses his sins, he now has silenced his co-frere and continues abusing the alter boys! This was and brought up at father Levi Noel trial by the judge Donald Leblanc “You did not confess to have your sins excuse, but more to silence the confessor”!
    Just for this reason ALONE, any priest withholding information on child abuse, should not be excused by any religeous ritual!


  5. Larry Green says:

    The more victims who have suffered as a result of a single priest’s neglect, the louder the voice of that single priest on this “seal of confession issue” and the fact is that , they are all pretty loud and pretty clear from my perspective.

  6. deeplybetrayed says:

    For myself, I always refer to 1 John 1:9 and bring it to bear on my own life.
    Though I no longer confess to a priest, I do confess to God. Yes, He knows my heart and my sins but He asks for confession. Psalm 51 is King David’s heartfelt repentance after adultry/murder. He was a man after God’s own heart because he repented and poured out his heart. That’s what made him great.
    Confession heals the soul. Keeping secret sins isolates us,
    destroys relationships as it destroys our soul. We have to bring everything into the Light sooner or later if we want to be free children of God. Whatever takes away our peace with God is a grey area. Whatever we hide, others see, I think. We also have to forgive the sins of others, as our misery may not be because of our own sin – even generational.
    Matthew 6:14-15 sets the standard; if we withhold forgiveness we tie God’s hands.
    I use the Scriptures as my standard, anyway, it’s the only one I trust.
    Praying for our enemies is wonderfully freeing, too.

    Pedophilia, however, is organized crime against children and must be condemned by the law of the land because the law of the church does not seem to condemn it. It protects predators.
    There is a strong spirit of witchcraft in religion. By that I mean, domination, intimidation and manipulation. That’s not the God of the Bible. The more we cover up, the more we have to cover up. That’s human politics.
    I always have hope. I always receive new life after sincere confession.

  7. MikeMc says:

    I’ve no doubt the seal of confession has allowed priests to abuse again. As kids indoctrinated in Catholic “stuff” we used to argue “what ifs”.

    What if……

    What if a man says in confessional he is going to kill the President? Of course the priest is not going to give absolution. But will he warn the President? What if the person in the confessional says he is gong to kill his wife? Does the priest stop him or warn the woman? What if the person in confession says he is going to kill the priest hearing confession? Does the priest leave the confessional?

    What ifs…were a silly game played by Catholic kids who were starting to question their own Catholic faith etc.

    Well, the abuse of kids is no silly game. Any priest who actually does hear in confessional from another priest that he has been abusing kids should indeed report this to the authorities.

    But you know as well as I do that the priest hearing confession is scarred and tarred with the same Catholic brush and would not reveal this for the sake of a Catholic rule as well as the reputation of the Church.

    So there we are back to square one…….the ‘rule and reputation’ is more important than the abused victim.

    I honestly believe this has occured before. Like out of some Tom Hanks movie about the secret societies within the Church…you’ve seen those movies……the Church has secret codes and laws that must not be broken.

    Thus, abuse of kids has gone on even after a priest confesses his sins of abuse to another priest or Bishop.

    Sylvia suggests not giving absolution. She says: “I also believe that is essential that all priests refuse to give absolution to those who confess that they have sexually abused a child until such time as they, the penitents, have shown true contrition, and as far as I’m concerned true contrition in this instance entails the abuser turning himself in to authorities.”

    Where on this site have you seen or heard of an abuser turning himself in? Oh some have turned themselves in after the accusations have been made public.

    Finally, it’s about time the LAW expects the seal of confession NOT to apply in the case of sexual abuse. But do you think the “brotherhood of priests” is going to see it that way?

    I truly doubt it.

  8. Lina says:

    It makes sense to me for a priest to NOT give absolution to a brother priest who told him about abusing a child (or other vulnerable people); without having first suggest to him in a non-judgemental way to turn himself in with his lawyer to the police.
    Therefore, help this troubled priest take responsibility for his actions.

    Is it possible many of these predator priests do not confess their crimes to their brother priests?
    They may have talked themselves into believing they haven’t sinned or they just say sorry privately to God and promise not do that awful evil stuff again?

    A bishop or other clergy officials could easy suggest (pacify) a family of a clergy abuse victim that this predator priest will get help and not be place in positions that these unfortunate incidents will happened again.
    Therefore, making it clear to the clergy abuse victim and his family the temptation of this priest to re-offend will not happen, they will make sure (promise) this priest will be dealt with and taken care of.
    The family of the victim with keep their silence by consenting and signing a document to a financial deal that was made with these Church Officials.

    I believe some priests did and do break the seal of confession for the good of the progression of the Holy Roman Catholic Church and for reasons thinking they had this special permission from GOD to do so.
    We do not hear about this breaking the seal of confession often because those who lived through it…it was these priests’ word against theirs.

    This happens in the seminary and in convents especially. Even then, these folks that were victims will not be believed because they were called trouble makers, not loyal to the Catholic Church and the best excuse I heard was: ‘they have an axe to grind’.
    This was revealed by family members and friends of men who left the seminary and females while they were in a convent.

    Fear has a way in taking hold of these non-predator/abuser priests who heard and knew a brother priest(s) who have committed evil crimes against the innocents.
    These priests must go into some kind of self preservation mode and may be asking themselves over and over what would Jesus do, what can they really do, or stay in that deep denial and believe there’s no problem(s) to really worry about, after all God is in controlled.
    They have this out of sight and out of mind mentality.

    What is so troubling, somehow these priests are capable to find a way to detached themselves from their brother priests’ VICTIMS and that is something I don’t understand.

    These priests, these clergy can look straight into a victim’s or a family member’s face and say their hands are tied and just turn and walk away from the cries of help from those abuse victims who are hurting deeply and seeking justice, it’s sad yet so TRUE.

    Many priests and clergy are good at acting innocent.
    We can see their acting skills at work inside a church as well outside a church, and if they need too they will excel in any other place that also includes inside a COURTROOM.

    These clergy are good at deception, they act naturally in their role, they must believe they do this for the good of the Holy Roman Catholic Church of course.

    What a tragedy for all victims, their loved ones and their supporters!

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