Justice Minister Alan Shatter (pictured) has said that Irish courts may protect priests from prosecution who refuse to violate the seal of Confession under proposed Government legislation making it a crime not to disclose allegations about child sexual abuse.
Speaking in the Seanad in a debate on the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill on Thursday, Mr Shatter said that if a case regarding the seal of Confession arose, it would be a matter for a court to decide whether the seal was protected.
He said there had been “a lot of media comment suggesting that this Bill has an effect on the 'seal of confession' or sacerdotal privilege.”
He said that there was no exemption for, or reference to the seal of Confession in the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 which makes it an offence to withhold information in respect of a serious criminal offence, and that this was also the case with the proposed Bill.
However, he added: “It will continue to be a matter for any court before which a person is prosecuted to determine whether any particular privilege exists or applies in the circumstances of any particular case.”
Mr Shatter said: "I think it is worth stating that the issue of sacerdotal privilege has never arisen with regard to the offences prescribed by the 2006 Act nor in relation to the offences in this Bill which are currently covered by the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998.
"It should be borne in mind that the issue of confession does not arise in regard to the many cases of criminal offences identified in the Ryan, Murphy or Cloyne Reports.
"These reports all relate to complaints of abuse made to the church authorities by the victims or by family members or by members of the public.
"Nor, as far we know, is it an issue with regard to the reprehensible activities of the late Father Brendan Smyth and many of the other priests who have during the past two decades been convicted and sentenced in this State for child abuse."
Last month, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said that priests would be required to reveal what they had heard in Confession.
“We haven't made any exclusions or exemptions," she said in response to a question from Sean O'Rourke on RTE Radio's News at One as to whether the seal of Confession would be protected by the law. "Everybody's under an obligation to report."
Priests have said they would not break the seal of confession. Fr Sean McDonagh of the Association of Catholic Priests, which represents 800 clergymen, told the Irish Independent that he wouldn't be willing to break the seal of confession for anyone”.
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."
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 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.
Last year, leading criminal barrister Paul Anthony McDermott branded the Government plan “one of the daftest ideas to come out in recent years”.
Speaking about the proposal on RTE's Frontline, he said that the idea of breaking the seal of confession made little sense when confession is “anonymous; you don't have to give your name, you don't give your address, you don't give your PPS number.”
He added, “So if that law was passed as it is, it would almost certainly be found unconstitutional, because the first thing a court would say to the Government is, why are you breaking the seal of confession for child abuse, but not murder? “So if you're going to put forward a law, you have to put it forward on a rational basis.”