Seal of confession imperiled after Irish sex-abuse report

Prime Minister: “The law of the land should not be stopped by a collar or a crozier”

Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny is pictured at a news conference following a meeting of European leaders in Brussels in June. (CNS photo/Reuters)

Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny is pictured at a news conference following a meeting of European leaders in Brussels in June. (CNS photo/Reuters)A new law proposed by the Irish government in the wake of another damning report into Church mishandling of allegations of sexual abuse looks set to spell disaster for the inviolability of the seal of confession in the country.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter has warned that he will not tolerate an exemption for the confessional in a law to be introduced that will make it a criminal offense for anyone not to report information about alleged abuse to the police. A leading Irish pro-religious freedom campaigner has described the proposed law as “unprecedented,” and it is likely to put further strain on the already tense relationship between church and state in Ireland.

The move comes after what Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh described as “another dark day” in the life of the Church in Ireland, when a judicial commission revealed July 13 that the Church’s own guidelines were “not fully or consistently implemented” in the Diocese of Cloyne as recently as 2008.

The report, released by Judge Yvonne Murphy, also said Cloyne Bishop John Magee admitted to what has been described as inappropriate behavior with a young man. The report said Bishop Magee embraced the young man, who was at the time an aspirant to the priesthood, kissed him, and told him that he loved him and had dreamt about him. Bishop Magee resigned last year.

The 400-page report also records for the first time stark disagreement among Irish bishops over whether Bishop Magee—a former secretary to three popes—should quit his post as bishop of Cloyne after December 2008, when the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church said he was implementing child-safeguarding policies that were “inadequate and, in some respects, dangerous.”

At an emergency meeting of the Irish bishops’ conference in January 2009, just weeks after the National Board report critical of Bishop Magee, “there were strong opinions on both sides” as to whether the bishop should quit, according to the Murphy report.

>“The strongest argument in favor of resignation was made by Archbishop [Diarmuid] Martin [of Dublin],” the Murphy report said. At the time, Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, Northern Ireland emphatically insisted that Bishop Magee should not go despite the latter having admitted to inappropriate behavior with the young man.

The Commission of Investigation was charged with examining the handling of allegations made against 19 priests from 1996—when the Church in Ireland first implemented child protection procedures—to 2009. The commission found that “the primary responsibility for the failure to implement the agreed procedures lies with Bishop Magee.” It also shows that Bishop Magee lied to the government in 2005, saying that all allegations were being shared with the police when this was, in fact, not the case.

“It is a remarkable fact,” the report notes, “that Bishop Magee took little or no active interest in the management of clerical child sexual abuse cases until 2008.”

The commission also accuses the Vatican of being “entirely unhelpful” to bishops who wanted to fully implement the agreed-upon guidelines.

In particular, the report referred to a letter from the apostolic nuncio to Ireland a year after the 1996 guidelines were introduced in which he informed bishops that the Holy See was refusing to grant the document Vatican approval. The Congregation for Clergy, the letter noted, insisted the guidelines were not in conformity with canon law.

“There can be no doubt that this letter greatly strengthened the position of those in the Church in Ireland who did not approve of the framework document as it effectively cautioned them against implementation,” the report said. “This effectively gave individual Irish bishops the freedom to ignore the procedures which they had agreed and gave comfort and support to those who…dissented from the stated official Irish Church position.”

As the fall-out from the report’s release continued, Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore summoned Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza for an explanation on July 14. The chairman of the ruling Fine Gael party, Gilmore demanded that the nuncio be expelled—a move that would mark a serious rupture in relations between Ireland and the Holy See.

After his meeting with the nuncio, Gilmore said the Vatican intervention was “absolutely unacceptable” and “inappropriate.” He said he told Archbishop Leanza that an explanation and response was required as to why the Vatican had told priests and bishops they could undermine the rules. Speaking after the meeting Archbishop Leanza said he was “distressed…by the failures in assuring the protection of children within the Church despite all the good work that has been done,” and promised to “immediately” deliver a copy of the report to Rome.

Responding to journalists’ queries, Gilmore said: “I want to know why this state, with which we have diplomatic relations, issued a communication, the effect of which was that very serious matter of the abuse of children in this country was not reported to the authorities,” he said.

Gilmore maintained that the Vatican had conveyed the message that somehow it was “all right to evade responsibility” for reporting these matters to the Irish authorities.

“What happened here should not have happened. What happened here was a totally inappropriate, unjustified, and unacceptable by the Vatican in the reporting arrangements even within the context of the arrangements of the Church itself,” Gilmore said.

He said he had not set a deadline for a response, but that he would judge what represented an appropriate period of time to respond to the formal request from the government.

Meanwhile, Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald has vehemently ruled out exempting the sacrament of confession from a proposed law that would see priests who do not reveal information about abuse heard in the confessional go to prison for up to five years.

“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,” Fitzgerald said. “This is about the law of the land. It’s about child protection. Are we saying…if a child is at risk of child sexual abuse that should not be reported? We cannot say that. The law of the land is clear and unambiguous.”

However, a new group that represents more than 500 of the country’s priests has insisted that the absolute secrecy of the confessional must be observed despite the threats.

Father P.J. Madden, a spokesman for the Association of Catholic Priests, insisted that the inviolability of the seal of confession is a value above state law.

The sacramental seal, Father Madden said, is “above and beyond all else,” and should not be broken even if a penitent confesses to a crime.

Father Madden said he would strongly urge and appeal to the penitent—whether a priest or anyone else—to go and confess the crime to the police, but that he did not approve of the idea of the priest himself reporting what was said within the confessional.

“If I’m breaking the law, then somebody has to find a way to address that for me…but in my own right as a priest what I understand is the seal of confession is above and beyond all else,” Father Madden said. “The seal of confession is a very sacred seal for lots of different reasons way beyond this one single issue, however serious this one single issue is.”

However, Minister Fitzgerald said, “I’m not concerned, neither is the government, about the internal laws, the rules governing anybody.”

Prime Minister Enda Kenny appeared to give his backing to the move when he told parliament that “the law of the land should not be stopped by a collar or a crozier.”

Bishop of Dromore John McAreavey told Catholic News Service that the hierarchy would await the publication of the legislation before assessing it. However, he said, he felt it was “unreal to suggest that the seal of confession has prevented the reporting of the abuse of children.”

David Quinn, the director of the pro-religious freedom think-tank the Iona Institute, told Catholic World Report that the proposal to require priests to reveal information from the confessional is “unprecedented.”

“This would make us the one and only country in the Western world to have such a law. Even Revolutionary France in the days of its worst violence against the Church did not pass a law requiring the breaking of the seal of confession,” Quinn said.

He said the government “is clearly missing something that every other government can see, which is that at a minimum such a law is very unlikely to lead to a single conviction and at a maximum will be counter-productive and will make society less safe, rather than more safe.”

Quinn added, “No child-abuser will go to a priest in confession knowing the priest is required to inform the police. But cutting off the avenue of confession to a child-abuser makes it less likely that he will talk to someone who can persuade him to take the next step.”

The report released July 13 is highly critical of the Cloyne vicar general, Msgr. Denis O’Callaghan, who, it notes, “did not approve of the requirement to report [allegations] to the civil authorities.”

The commission notes that “one of the ironies of Msgr. O’Callaghan’s position is that it was clear from his evidence that, in most cases, he believed the complaints, which make his failure to implement his own church’s policy all the more surprising.”

“He also displayed some inexplicable failures to recognize child sexual abuse,” the report adds.

Allegations of abuse and concerns about inappropriate behavior were raised against nearly 8 percent of priests serving in the Cloyne diocese, the commission found. One priest of the diocese has been convicted, while another was successful in having his trial halted because of his age. One chapter of the report is heavily redacted because the cleric involved is currently before the courts.

Regarding canon law, the commission found that there was a “haphazard and sometimes sloppy” approach to canonical investigations.

On a somewhat positive note, the commission concludes that “there was no case in which the Diocese of Cloyne moved priests against whom allegations had been made to another parish or out of the diocese altogether.”

Cloyne was also criticized for its failure to properly record and maintain information about complaints of child sexual abuse until 2008.

The diocese drew attention in 2008 when social service authorities expressed concern to the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church that Bishop Magee was not following the Church’s own child safeguarding guidelines properly.

Initially, Bishop Magee resisted calls to resign and pledged to assist the investigation. However, in March 2009 the Vatican announced the appointment of an apostolic administrator to the diocese—at Bishop Magee’s request—and said Bishop Magee would no longer exercise power of governance but would retain the title of bishop of Cloyne. In March 2010, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI had accepted Bishop Magee’s resignation.

Three of Ireland’s 26 Catholic dioceses have now been subject to judicial inquiries that have severely criticized Church leaders and found that the reputation of priests and the Church, as well as the avoidance of scandal, were put ahead of the rights of children to be protected from abuse.

A high-profile team of senior prelates recently concluded the first phase of an apostolic visitation of the Church in Ireland at the request of Pope Benedict. The Pope announced the move in a March 2010 letter to the Catholics of Ireland in which he repeated his shame and sorrow at the abuse and the subsequent mishandling of cases and warned Irish bishops that their failures had “obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing.”

This past May, the head of the National Board for Safeguarding Children, Ian Elliott, admitted that he had consider resigning over what he described as a lack of cooperation from senior Church leaders in Ireland with his auditing of dioceses’ handling of allegations. Bishops had withdrawn from the auditing process, citing data protection concerns. However, all dioceses are now cooperating, according to the board, and the body expects to complete the audits in the coming year.

Four Irish bishops have resigned in recent years after coming under pressure after evidence of mishandling of abuse allegations.

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About Michael Kelly 29 Articles
Michael Kelly is editor of the Irish Catholic, Ireland's best-selling religious newspaper.