Northern Ireland

Is confession still good for the soul?

confessional
Image caption The Irish justice minister says the priest-penitent confidentially of the confessional is not sacrosanct

BBC News Online examines the implications of Irish Justice Minister Alan Shatter's planned legislation to deal with the withholding of information about child abuse. Could it bring the state into direct conflict with the Catholic Church?

Irish Justice Minister Alan Shatter announced his intention to regulate the Catholic Church following the publication on Wednesday of a damning report into the handling of sex abuse in County Cork.

The Cloyne Report found that allegations of abuse by priests made since 1996 had not been properly handled by the then Bishop of the Diocese, John Magee.

In his tough response to the report, Mr Shatter announced his intention to introduce legislation later this year which would make it an offence to withhold information about child abuse from the authorities.

Under the new legislation, cardinals, bishops, priests and nuns would be prosecuted for failing to disclose or report instances of clerical child abuse.

Failure to do so could result in a five-year prison term.

And in a move which some Catholic clergy have admitted came as a surprise, the justice minister said he would not exclude the priest-penitent confidentiality of the Confession box.

Absolves

In the Catholic Church, the Sacrament of Penance, also known as Confession or Reconciliation, is the method by which a priest or bishop, acting in God's place, absolves a person from their sins.

Mr Shatter said the legislation would be clear and without any "legal grey areas". The laws would take precedence over the internal rules of an organisation and would affect doctor-patient confidentiality and priest-penitent confidentiality.

In effect, the law would mean that a priest who failed to report instances of child abuse to the police would face five years in jail, even if they learned of the crime during confession.

Respected religious commentator David Quinn does not believe the legislation would be effective.

Mr Quinn, a columnist for the Irish Independent, said the law would make Ireland unique in western democracy.

"There is no precedent in the western world," he said.

"Not even in the French revolution was that suggested.

Animated discussion

"The law would have no practical effect, no child abuser will be going to confession."

Alan Shatter's comments have already caused animated discussions amongst Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

If enacted, the legislation would pose a huge problem for Irish Catholic priests for whom the confidentiality of all statements made by penitents during the course of confession is absolute.

And while the church has amended and eased some of its stricter rules in modern times, the confidentiality of the Confessional has remained sacrosanct.

Priest-penitent confidentiality is a tenet of the church world-wide. Priests have often come under pressure to break the Seal of Confession, especially in countries - e.g Communist states - hostile to the church.

And among laity, it has long been a matter for debate as to whether a priest should inform authorities about the identity of a person who had confessed a serious crime such as murder.

The church is considering its response to Mr Shatter's proposed legislation.

However, Father Eugene O'Hagan, a Canon lawyer and Judicial Vicar of Down and Connor Diocese, said it was enshrined in the church's Canon Law that the Seal of Confession was "inviolable".

He said Canon 983, 1 and 2 held that "it is absolutely wrong for a confessor and/or interpreter, in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion".

Father O'Hagan said: "In the wake of the Cloyne Report, news of legal remedies that would challenge or seek to remove the 'privileged' status accorded by many civil jurisdictions, including the Republic of Ireland, to information exchanged between priest and penitent will come as a surprise.

"Legal remedies to the failures, personal and institutional, revealed by the Cloyne Report should be proportionate."

When, as promised by Justice Minister Shatter, the legislation comes before the Dail, the Irish parliament, in the autumn, it will be interesting to see if politicians are still influenced by their religion (and their electorate) or if there has been a clear separation between church and state.