Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald has vehemently ruled out exempting the Catholic sacrament of confession from long-awaited rules on mandatory reporting of child abuse.
Amid the fallout from the Cloyne report’s exposure of former bishop John Magee for failing to unmask abusive priests, the minister reiterated warnings that there will be no exceptions to hardline rules on withholding information.
Ms Fitzgerald dismissed out of hand suggestions that information given to a priest in the confessional about crimes against a child can remain confidential,
The Catholic Church’s watchdog on clerical abuse, Ian Elliot, has claimed there should be room to allow clerics to keep secret details passed on when someone seeks forgiveness.
But Ms Fitzgerald backed Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s stark warning yesterday that one rule will apply to everyone in Ireland.
“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,” the minister said.
“I’m not concerned, neither is the Government, about the internal laws, the rules governing any body.
“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.”
Under new laws planned to be in place by the autumn, anyone found to have withheld information on a crime against a child will face up to five years in jail.
Former Bishop Magee has apologised after the Cloyne inquiry revealed he misled authorities over clerical abuse as recently as three years ago.
He is no longer living in Cloyne but has rejected calls from two bishops to come forward and answer for his failings in person in public.
Ms Fitzgerald backed those demands.
“It would be very helpful for all of the victims... If Bishop Magee had been there to respond,” the minister said.
“He was the person in charge of the diocese during the period that is examined and clearly his presence to reply to what is in Cloyne would have been of some solace.
“Probably not an awful lot actually to the victims, but from a responsibility point of view I would have welcomed his presence. But he decided not to be there.”
Ms Fitzgerald said those who do not comply with the mandatory reporting guidelines face a range of sanctions, varying from retraining to fines, being banned from working with children and jail.
“We will have a range of sanctions if the reporting requirements and other requirements on the Children First legislation are not met,” the minister said.
“This combined with the legislation which Minister Shatter has announced about withholding information is a very powerful message about child protection and how central child protection is to the concern of this government and we are determined to have strong legislation to ensure that children are protected.
“There will be no ambivalence in it.”
Ms Fitzgerald said she hoped to have the legislation in place by the end of the year.