Onus on priests to report offences unclear

Thu, Apr 26, 2012, 01:00

SEAL OF CONFESSION:THE DEPARTMENT of Justice was unable to confirm last night whether priests will be legally obliged to report serious offences against children to gardaí that are disclosed during Confession.

The issue first sparked controversy after Catholic bishops warned last year that any laws that would breach the seal of Confession would be a “serious offence” to the rights of penitents.

To date priests have been allowed to refuse to answer questions relating to what is said in the confessional under what is known as “sacerdotal privilege”.

However, Mr Shatter said yesterday the issue had become a “media obsession” and the new law would not protect priests from prosecution for failing to pass on information that arises during Confession.

He said similar legislation on withholding information in relation to serious offences – the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act – had been in place since 1998 without any issue. Mr Shatter said this Act also applied to priests.

However, some legal observers said the planned law contained a section that may exempt priests from prosecution.

The proposed legislation states that any offences for withholding information do not remove “any rule of law or other enactment entitling a person to refuse to disclose information”.

In a further statement last night, the department said the Bill did not propose any change in regard to sacerdotal privilege, which has been relied on in cases dealing with civil matters.

“The extent to which the privilege can be relied on in a criminal case is unclear,” the statement added.

Separately, children’s groups yesterday welcomed the new Bills, in particular the decision to place the Children First guidelines on a legal footing. Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay said the move marked a turning point in the history of child protection.

The Children’s Rights Alliance, a coalition of non-governmental organisations, said the move would “change the culture of child protection in Ireland, ensuring that abuse is tackled head-on and not hidden away”.