Justice Minister Alan Shatter reiterated that everyone, including priests, were obliged to report child sex abuse and other offences, including white collar crime, to the gardaí, even if they hear about it in the confessional.
The minister described the issue as a media obsession and said priests had been obliged to provide gardaí with information about a whole series of crimes since the 1998 Offences Against the State Amendment Act.
Nobody had raised any question about this or the 2011 Criminal Justice Act that placed the same obligation on the whole community, including priests, to assist gardaí with information.
The confessional was a diversion from the real issue, which had nothing to do with the confessional but with the fact that sexual abuse of children by clergy had been known about by religious orders and leaders as a result of parents, victims and others telling them, outside of the confessional.
“It was reported but covered up. And in the future it will be illegal for anyone across the community to do so,” he said.
The legislation was about more than clerical abuse but was also designed to deal with the more prevalent cases of child abuse within families.
“This is a mammoth piece of legislation of great importance,” he said, adding that the obligation to report information about it to gardaí should not have been excluded from the original 1998 law.
Meanwhile, an organisation has said it’s a ‘red herring’ to focus on the seal of the confessional when discussing the statutory reporting of child abuse, as such an obligation would be impossible to monitor, according to the Irish Association of Catholic Priests (ACP).
The ACP yesterday reiterated that priests would never pass on information shared in the confessional as, during ordination, they take an oath ensuring total confidentiality.
Anyhow, any such mandatory reporting by priests would be “unenforceable”, said Fr Brendan Hoban.
“There are only the two people in confessional, the priest and the confessor. So who could enforce this rule? Secondly, the dynamic of confession is that you don’t know the identity of the person. You only hear the voice. Are you supposed to run out and take down their car registration?
“The second thing is that these type of confessions don’t happen. There has never been any indication that such confessions have been made to a priest. So I don’t think this is an issue at all,” he said.
The row over the seal of confession erupted again when Mr Shatter published legislation on Wednesday that will make it a criminal offence for a person to fail to disclose information to gardaí that would assist in prosecuting a person who commits a serious offence against a child or vulnerable adult.
Under the legislation, anyone failing to pass on information could face up to 10 years in jail.
Mr Shatter warned that any defences published in the new laws would not protect priests from prosecution for failing to pass on information obtained during confession.
His draft legislation, which is due to be introduced later this year, also provoked a response from one of the Dublin Archdiocese’s auxiliary bishops, Raymond Field, who said: “The seal of the confessional is inviolable as far as I am concerned, and that’s the end of the matter.”
Meanwhile, the Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW) has said that it “doesn’t have enough staff to cope with its current workload, never mind with the increased demand once mandatory reporting is introduced”.
IASW president Ineke Durville said: “People are not coping at all at the moment. Yes, on paper we got 260 new posts as part of the Ryan Report implementation plan, but at the same time, people retiring, on maternity leave and sick leave are not being replaced.
“We also fear that because there will be this renewed emphasis on child protection because of mandatory reporting, resources will be taken from early intervention and it is this early intervention that stops a welfare care becoming a crisis case. We are operating as a fire brigade service as it is and that, we would imagine, will increase even further.”
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