“The Catholic bishops’ child-protection body is advising priests not to inform state authorities about incidents of child abuse they hear about in the confession box, in apparent contravention of the law. Guidelines published by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church exempts priests from passing on admissions of child abuse made in the confessional, it has emerged.
The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 does not allow for confessional privilege. When the law was going through the Oireachtas, Alan Shatter, as the justice minister, said mandatory reporting would apply “regardless of any internal rules of any religious grouping”.
Priests are “mandated” persons, obliged to report abuse concerns under the Children First Act.
The church board’s document, Safeguarding Children Policy and Standards, published in 2016, advises clergy on procedures for reporting child abuse. It states: “These procedures specify that all suspicions, concerns, knowledge or allegations that meet the threshold for reporting to the statutory authorities (apart from those received in the sacrament of reconciliation) will be reported.”
Asked whether this advice meant the church was flouting Irish law, the safeguarding board said it “is required under its memorandum and articles of association to have due regard to the doctrines of the Catholic church”.
“All suspicions, concerns and allegations of child abuse must be reported to the statutory authorities [with] one exception to this rule, which is if abuse is disclosed during the sacrament of reconciliation,” the board said. “The maintenance of trust in the [sacrament] requires the guarantee of absolute confidentiality, allowing for no exceptions. This is known as the seal of confession, and guarantees to the penitent that anything revealed to the confessor will not be divulged to anyone else.”
Citing canon law, it said: “The sacramental seal is inviolable [and], 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.”
The board said that if a child disclosed abuse in confession, the priest should clarify that it would not be repeated outside. The priest should urge the child to disclose the abuse to a trusted adult, and should tell the child confidentiality could not be guaranteed if they discussed it with him outside the confessional.
Andrew Madden, a campaigner against the cover-up of clerical child abuse, said he notified the Department of Justice and the Department of Children in 2016 that the church was contravening mandatory reporting requirements.
“They both wrote back confirming the legislation does not facilitate such exemption for clergy hearing confession. Yet the church’s policy remains unchanged. That’s unacceptable, especially in light of the Pope’s visit to Ireland in August,” said Madden, who was abused as an altar boy by Fr Ivan Payne.
“The church’s position and the Pope’s position is that bishops should comply with state law. They clearly aren’t. Pope Francis’s visit is an opportunity for the state to confront the church about this.”
In her book Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church, Marie Keenan, a UCD assistant professor and psychotherapist, said eight out of nine offending priests who participated in her research had disclosed their sexual abuse of children in the confessional.”