Innocence of accused priests should be emphasised - report

Catholic Church child protection guidelines makes recommendation on announcement of cleric standing aside

Public announcements by the church that a priest is standing aside from ministry due to child abuse allegations should emphasise the presumption of innocence, updated Catholic Church child protection guidelines have said.

Published by the Church’s child protection body, its National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC), the guidelines also emphasise that in such cases, while parishioners cannot be told everything, “what they are told should be the truth.”

The Guidance on Child Safeguarding seven documents, published on Wednesday morning, also advise that when an accused priest dies before an investigation has concluded “careful thought should be given by the Church authority to the way the requiem liturgy and internment is conducted. Publicly praising the respondent’s qualities as a priest could have a seriously detrimental impact on complainants.”

Once again the inviolability of the confessional is reiterated. While “all suspicions, concerns and allegations of child abuse must be reported to the statutory authorities,” they state that “there is one exception to this rule. That is “if abuse is disclosed during the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” the documents say.


They continue that “the maintenance of trust in the Sacrament of Reconciliation requires the guarantee of absolute confidentiality, allowing for no exceptions. This is known as the Seal of Confession and guarantees to the penitent that anything revealed to the confessor will not be divulged to anyone else.”

The Conference of Irish Catholic Bishops “is to establish norms regarding the confessional; it is to take care, however, that there are always confessionals with a fixed grate between the penitent and the confessor in an open place, so that the faithful who wish to can use them freely,” the documents say.

However, where abuse is admitted by a perpetrator or alleged by a child/young person in the confessional, the guidelines direct that a priest should strongly advise them to report this to the statutory authorities.

In cases where an abuse allegation is received and a priest or religious is standing down from ministry “the Church authority is responsible for what is communicated about this change, to whom, and how this is communicated,” the guidelines say. The preferred approach is for any public communication to be agreed with the respondent, where the presumption of innocence should be emphasised,” they say.

“Some obvious sensitivities need to be addressed, not least the fact that the priest is innocent by law, at least until some future time when a full investigation of concerns has been concluded, and so his name and reputation must be protected. In some situations, the respondent priest remains living in the parish with the permission and support of his Church authority.”

The guidelines say that while “confidentiality is required, and advice will be needed on what can be shared, by whom and with whom. Parishioners cannot be told everything, but they do need an explanation for the sudden unavailability of the priest for a period. What they are told should be the truth.”

The new documents were “practical guides to implementing the standards,” explained Teresa Devlin, chief executive of the NBSC. “So, where a standard might talk about keeping good records, this will explain what is to be recorded, by whom and where it is to be stored and how it should be used.

“The Guidance also includes checklists for activities like recruiting new staff, templates for codes of behaviour when working with children; forms for notifying the civil authority agencies and other forms of information capture, and sample workshops for consultation with children and young people.”

Wednesdays guidance documents support the standards adopted by the church in March 2016 and are an update on those originally produced in 2008.

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Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times