The decision by some Catholic bishops to defy public health advice by allowing First Holy Communions and Confirmations to take place in their dioceses this month has been criticised by the co-founders of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP).
The bishops have also been accused by clerical abuse survivor Andrew Madden of placing children at risk of "reckless endangerment. Again."
To date Bishop of Elphin Kevin Doran in the west, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore Phonsie Cullinan in the south, Bishop of Meath Tom Deenihan in the east, Bishop of the cross-Border diocese of Clogher Larry Duffy and Bishop of Raphoe (mainly Donegal) Alan McGuckian have advised parishes that Communions and Confirmations can go ahead from mid-August.
Mr Madden, who was abused by former Dublin priest Ivan Payne, said that taking public health guidance as advice rather than regulation, reminded him of the late Cardinal Desmond Connell's description of the church's then child protection measures as "only guidelines" with no authority in canon or civil law.
“That was why Children First [State’s child protection legislation] was put on a statutory level,” he said.
In Mr Madden’s view it was clear some bishops “have learned nothing from any of this and are now encouraging people to ignore health and safety”. He said “church before children, old habits die hard”.
Fr Tony Flannery, co-founder of the ACP, accused the bishops of "effectively lining up with the anti-vaxers" in challenging medical and State authority. He contrasted that with how the bishops themselves rigidly applied the rule of law in the church itself, "as I know".
The bishops, he said, in “defying health and official advice”, were mistaken and would be better “if they faced the reality that these events have little real religious meaning”.
Another ACP co-founder, Fr Brendan Hoban, said that "common sense demanded that First Communions and Confirmations could be postponed indefinitely and that the fallout from that necessary decision – disappointment of children, cancellation of parties, buying of outfits, etc – though all important and enjoyable in terms of faith and family, were not cumulatively more important than the loss of life to Covid".
The “plain and simple fact is that while church authorities can control the [First Communion] ceremony, the party is something else altogether. Hence, the danger,” he said.
“Throwing more petrol on the anti-Nphet [National Public Health Emergency Team] fire are a number of groups with their own agendas who claim that Nphet is unfairly targeting them. These include church groups ,” he said in a recent Western People column.
Current Covid-19 measures say ceremonies including First Holy Communions and Confirmations should not take place at this time. Baptisms may proceed on August 5th and they must follow all protective measures. Gatherings after the ceremony should be avoided.
Masses and other in-person religious services are permitted, but with protective measures and a maximum of 50 people are allowed attend. Where a venue can hold more than 50, that may be permitted, provided safety measures, including social distancing and ventilation requirements, are observed.
Martin Long, a spokesman for the Catholic bishops, said last week there was no centralised policy or approach to Communions and Confirmations.
“The responsibility for ministering the sacraments rests with individual diocese bishops and their local parish priests,” he said.
On Friday Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he does not approve of any “unilateral breaching” of Covid-19 regulations. Mr Martin said he wanted to know if it was “too much to ask” that the current regulations are adhered to while the country makes significant advances in the Covid-19 vaccination campaign.