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Brendan Hoban on the debate over the Seal of Confession

What we need now is a leadership, at this point, that eschews populism but
that calmly and deliberately, in the midst of competing voices pushing a
variety of agendas, does what has to be done. And recognises too what can
and can’t be done.
I wonder whether Alan Shatter, the Justice Minister, whose bailiwick this
is, has thought through the implications of his intention to force priests
to break the seal of Confession, in the interests of child protection.
There are all kinds of situations where client confidentiality demands
certain in-built protections. But the Seal of Confession is of a different
order altogether – as the standard of secrecy protecting a confession
outweighs any form of professional confidentiality or secrecy. Priests do
not just regard it as an absolute duty not to disclose anything that they
learn from penitents in the confessional. They know that if they reveal
anything they have learned during confession to anyone, even under a threat
of their own death or that of others, that they would be automatically
excommunicated. A priest cannot break the seal to save his own life, to
protect his good name, to refute a false accusation against himself, even to
save the life of another.
In a criminal matter, a priest may encourage a penitent to surrender to
authorities. However, this is the most a priest can do. We cannot directly
or indirectly disclose the matter to anyone, civil authorities or anyone
else. This very specific priest-penitent privilege is usually respected in
law and without it a priest’s capacity to fulfil his ministry is inhibited.
In a famous Hitchcock film ‘I Confess’ (1953), a killer confesses a murder
to a priest. In the event the priest was accused of the murder but the
dilemma the film conveyed was that the priest couldn’t break the seal of
Confession, even though his own life was at stake.
It is a measure of the vulnerability of the Catholic Church that part of the
package of measures being contemplated by the civil authorities effectively
amounts to a rejection of protection in law for what was always regarded as
the sacred seal of Confession.
Has it all come to this?

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  1. Andrew Harper says:

    I do not want to sound extreme or alarmist but surely this is how the persecution of the jewish people started. The nazis were operating in a climate of economic uncertainty and germany was at a low ebb, the tactic was to scapegoat the jews and blame all of societies ills on them – it started off small with them being sidelined for jobs, having their rights ignored, being spat at etc and look where it all led.

    of course this is by no means in comparison with what happened then but this could be the start of a slippery slope and sadly we only have ourselves to blame.

  2. Andrew I don’t think you are being alarmist but I doubt that “sadly we only have ourselves to blame”. For several years now the Gardai have been investigating claims of child abuse in the Cloyne Diocese and the following is the result:

    An allegation of reckless endangerment against former Bishop Magee was dismissed by the Director of Public Prosecutions in October 2010.

    In May 2011 Father Dan Duane a 73-year-old retired priest from Mallow, who was on trial charged with indecently assaulting a woman 30 years ago when she was a teenager, was found not guilty by direction of the trial judge in Cork Circuit Criminal Court (or in colloquial language the judge threw the case out of court without letting it go to the jury).

    HOWEVER in November 2010 Fr Brendan Wrixon was given an 18 month suspended sentence for gross indecency – which consisted of mutual masturbation of a 16 year old youth in 1983.

    And those to date are the results of several years of Garda inquiries. (There is another trial coming up in next November I think, and that may be the very last.) Since investigating child abuse is a specialist function, the Gardai who spent years investigating decades-old claims against priests, would otherwise have been involved in the prevention of child abuse today. THAT should be the real scandal!

  3. I find the Cloyne report totally unreadable and it is odd that the only concrete alleged “wrongdoing” is that the bishop hugged an 18 yo. I am pretty sure that those who are spouting such rage and venom have not read the report either. The Wrixon case bears all the marks of a desperate search for scapegoats. Some to on about “the rape and sodomy of children” — as far as I know there is one allegation of rape (of a 13 yo girl) and no allegations of actual or attempted buggery. The perceived or suspected or confessed offenses are mostly in the category of molestation and mostly date to the 1970s or 1980s. Am I missing something?

    The proposed legislation is the key to a Scarlet Letter regime, with the difference that the Puritans actually proved guilt before pillorying the sinner. Imagine if the legislation were made retrospective, so that priests had to cough up any secrets they had gleaned over the last 50 years… And why is it perversion of the course of justice not to report pedophile allegations only — why should priests not become STASI snitches for every kind of crime — what not ask priests to identify shoplifters, tax evaders, drunken drivers etc.?

    Msgr O’Callaghan is right –blind trust in legalist bureaucracy is not helping at all; the State needs to adopt a more humane and pastoral approach. The money poured into these lucrative feasts for lawyers would be better spent helping the children of the nation, who are abused and neglected in countless ways while this wildgoose chase for clerical abusers distracts our attention.

  4. Correction, “the only concrete alleged wrongdoing that has grabbed public attention” is what I meant to say.

  5. Can a priest give absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation to a confessed sexual abuser who refuses to accept responsibility and punishment for his crime(s) under the civil law? Shouldn’t a confession to law enforcement authorities be part of the penance assigned for any such crime? I’d guess that the confessed abuser could give the priest permission to act as intermediary to give the facts to the Gardai, but one way or another, the priest would be failing in his moral responsibility to the state and its citizens if he did not find a way to get the facts of such a case to the state’s investigators. The priest would then share culpability for the confessed abuser’s continuing abuse.

  6. Percy Larsen says:


    Cough. Wow. You selectively misrepresent the Cloyne report on Magee, and I wonder why you feel a need to do so. You’ve taken a pretty benign view of sexual contact shy of intercourse in your commentary before, and it smacks of discredited fads of thought that once rationalized such behavior.

    Anyway, what the report alleges is that Magee embraced his target, tightly, for a full minute, and then inquired if that “felt good”. Magee kissed his target on the forehead, and told his target he loved him and dreamed about him. The target was nearly or just 18 – it’s not clear that he was an adult or not. The target initially understood Magee’s behavior as paternal – and this is part of a well-trod pattern of predators choosing naive targets and employing equivocal initial steps as part of the grooming process, so that, eventually, targets feel responsible for seducing their predators. And careful clerical predators will nowadays start grooming prey on the cusp of adulthood so that, by the time they “do it”, they can rationalize their predation away.

    This is more than just a hug. Way more. It’s not intercourse, to be sure, but it has all the earmarks of classic grooming behavior by a predator.

    The fact that you treat this so dismissively is disturbing. You seem more eager to rationalize behaviors of fellow clerics than really grapple with them.

    Btw, I think there is hysteria, too. But, we’re not addicts here, and not locked into Black-and-White thinking patterns of addicts, so that we can’t deal with complexity. Had Magee’s grooming of his prey been known anyone else at the time, it should have set off alarm bells, big time.

  7. Andrew Harper says:

    Joe that is just what some of the TD’s apparently want the priests to become – informers!! Derek Keating TD was on with George Hook saying that he thought all crimes revealed in the confessional should be reported. Our politicians seem to have lost the plot – I agree the Cloyne report is totally unreadable and it also shows that a third of the allegations were false – notice how no one has picked that one up – just as no one said much when the HSE refused to give their own minister details of the children who died in their care – blatant hypocrisy. Imagine if we all made the assumption that every journalist was a phone hacker – good luck to that priest who is suing RTE it is about time someone was called to account for this hate campaign against priests.

  8. Máire: A priest cannot withhold absolution on the condition that the penitent turn himself in to law enforcement. The most the priest can do is encourage the penitent to do what is necessary to amend his life. Remember, the Sacrament of Penance is not a game. There are the necessary conditions: confession of sin, absolution, penance, and a firm purpose of amendment. The firm purpose of amendment requires that the penitent actually takes concrete steps to amend his life. Even if the priest is fooled, God isn’t. If the firm purpose of amendment is not there, then the confession is invalid. Correct me if I am wrong.

  9. Percy, you are applying a stereotype. I read the situation differently: the bishop, presumably gay, is well aware that the young man is straight, but wants to share a comforting hug with him, nothing more. There is no evidence that he was looking for any sexual contact. He is not accused to touching the young man in any improper way. I personally see nothing wrong with a young straight man holding an old gay man in this way. But I agree that in professional contexts this has become a nono, so the bishop certainly behaved foolishly. But the song and dance made about it seems excessive.

  10. Gerard Flynn says:

    The current climate has caused many people to speculate about the baleful influence of the Christian church on Ireland. Isn’t it about time that we began to look at the relationship from the other end, namely, that we started to think about how Irish culture has shaped the particular brand of Christianity we have in Ireland, across the churches, for better and for worse?

  11. Apart from the hysteria about Bishop Magee kissing a 17 and a half year old youth on the forehead, the following are also worthy of note – from an Irish Times article “The accused: What the report says about 18 priests”:

    In 2003 a resident of a nursing home wrote to the Archbishop of Dublin, Desmond Connell, to say he had been abused as a boy in Cloyne by a priest. Msgr O’Callaghan interviewed the man, who couldn’t remember the name of the priest.

    The commission says Msgr O’Callaghan should have made a greater effort to find the name of the priest or at least the parish where the abuse is alleged to have taken place.

    The man has since died. …….

    In 2002 Philip, who was in his 70s, wrote to Bishop Magee to say he had been abused by Fr Kelven when he was about 12. Philip had become a priest but left in 1970 and got married. Bishop Magee wrote to Philip but nothing more was done. The commission says no procedures were put in place. ………

    With reference to the first, suppose this man in a nursing home had told a Garda Superintendent that he had been abused in his childhood by a priest whose name he could not remember in a parish which he could also not remember. Would the Superintendent have assigned Gardai to investigate the allegation? Do the Gardai in the Cloyne area have nothing better to do with their time?

  12. So if the priests do a good job of maintaining the seal of confession, who’s going to find out?

  13. It seems to me that there are hints of paranoia in some of the comments above about the government’s intentions in proposing this legislation. I suspect that the legislation is primarily a symbolic measure, but it is an important symbol. In effect, it announces that the government will no longer tolerate secrecy, silence, refusal to cooperate in law enforcement investigations, withholding records or other evidence, and the various strategies of coverup and self-protection practiced by church officials even during collection of information for the published reports.

    Tony Flannery seems to understand the problems from both sides: the need of victims and the state for justice and the need of the bishops to avoid further collusion with pederasts by having all allegations of clerical abuse of children dealt with entirely by civil authorities. The government is (finally) asserting the primacy of civil law over canon law, and the reaction of Catholic laity seems almost entirely positive. Most important, this action opens the gates to real Church reform beginning in the parishes and hopefully reaching to Rome.

    If Martin’s analysis is right– “A priest cannot withhold absolution on the condition that the penitent turn himself in to law enforcement”– then the people will welcome this legislation. No state ought to protect a religious practice that benefits a criminal even psychologically, while shielding him from criminal prosecution and thus exposing more children to serious risk. (The sacrament of reconciliation has not been shown to “cure” pedophiles.) If I were a priest facing a choice between excommunication and exposing children to a preventable risk of rape, I believe I’d accept my excommunication with a prayer of thanksgiving after my chat with the Gardai!

  14. Maire, you don’t seem to understand that protection of the confessional seal is not a matter of avoiding excommunication, but of avoiding Judas-style betrayal.

    I was massacred on the Commonweal website for suggesting that the Cloyne report was all about small fry; then one of my critics read the actual report and changed her tune totally!

  15. Perhaps now would be a good time to bring back the fixed grill confessional. I find it ironic that in these times of concern about abuse, we see these open ‘reconciliation rooms’ which afford little privacy to the penitent and also allow penitent physical access to the priest and vice versa. The fixed grill protects both and also preserves anonymity. I know there is a free-standing grill in most of these reconciliation rooms, but sometimes the priest can see you walking in and it really doesn’t provide anonymity at all, especially not when the priest might peep round or else render the screen redundant by his seated position.

  16. It is good to see that the latest threat from the Government has brought together Catholics of all shades of opinion (not to mention Kevin Myers!) to stand up against State thuggery. I have an article on my website about a string of apologies by female religious congregations (mainly the Sisters of Mercy) to false accusers that started in 1996 and continued almost to the present day.

    On one occasion the Sisters paid £20,000 to parents who accused a nun of being responsible for the death of their daughter decades before. The parents then told the media that the nun had used a hot poker to burn holes in the baby’s legs.

    I was told that there had been a dispute within the Congregation with liberals favouring the issue of apologies and conservatives opposing the idea. Nowadays the two parties in the Church seem to be able to agree on this Seal of Confession issue at least. I am afraid it is far too late!

  17. Enda Kenny’s speech would also require critical deconstruction. Populist rhetoric is more dangerous than the legalistic gimlets he deplores.

  18. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Yes indeed, Joseph (?Joe). David Quinn did attempt a partial deconstruction of Enda’s scatter-gun populism this morning on the PK programme – but I’m afraid he was rather snowed under by the all-embracing Enda-enthusiasm of Terry Prone, Pat Kenny and (dare I whisper it?) Tony of this parish! Now why did I find myself wishing instead for a thoughtful comment from another Enda-from-Mayo ?

  19. Maria Conroy says:

    Poor David Quinn seems to be a lone voice in the wilderness. He is a man of courage, swimming against the tide with little back up from those who should be on his side. The hatred and vitriolic comments directed at him would undermine and deflate the best of us.

    In the aftermath of Enda’s speech, is there no one who questions Mr Kenny’s twisting of a quotation by Pope Benedict from his former time as a cardinal? Indeed, the state was barely mentioned in the populist tirade. A lot of words, but it’s action and resources that are needed to increase child protection in our country.

  20. Joe O’Leary writes, “you don’t seem to understand that protection of the confessional seal is not a matter of avoiding excommunication, but of avoiding Judas-style betrayal.” But it would be a betrayal only if the confessor solicited a confession through his previous promise of confidentiality. If the question here is “what is right?”– to protect the criminal from accepting responsibility before the law for his crime, or to help the state prosecute crime and prevent repeated crime– then it begs this question to call breaching confidentiality a “betrayal.” If you maintain confidentiality, you “betray” the trust we place in professionals to bring evidence of criminality to civil authorities. The criminal has the right to God’s forgiveness (a spiritual power invested in priests), but not the right to elude prosecution (a temporal power invested in state law/judicial officers). IF the criminal can use the confessional to escape the law, then the state is right to hold priests responsible for abuse of temporal state power when they shield criminals from investigation and prosecution.

    Again, I consider this law a symbolic move on the part of the government. Everyone knows that there are formidable obstacles to enforcing it. But it does bring into focus questions about whether and to what extent priests have usurped power that rightfully belongs to civil authorities. And that, I think, would be a worthwhile question to discuss.

  21. I was talking to a friend about the Church. He was getting down about it all. I told him that the Church belongs to Christ, and ultimately it’s His problem. We do what we can. We do our best, by God’s grace, to remain faithful. God will look after the rest.
    ”Pray, and don’t worry.” – Padre Pio.

  22. Maire, you don’t realize that doctors, psychoanalysts and priests cannot be dragooned as police snitches without grave damage to all their clients and to their healing role. I am not sure you even understand my point: priests who break the confessional seal incur communication, to be sure; but I am certain that no priest would worry about that if under pressure to break the seal: rather they would worry about the grave guilt involved in betraying a confidentiality assured to the faithful, in the name of Christ, from earliest childhood.

    I see people lauding Enda Kenny for speaking out against the systematic rape and torture of children. In fact Msgr O’Callaghan seems to have been torn between the “pound of flesh” mentality that would ruin old men’s lives (or actually kill them) on the basis of single allegations dating back as far as 60 years and the “quality of mercy” attitude that the Gospel enjoins. Kenny’s supposition that it was merely about the prestige of the Church is one of the many slapdash things in his speech. Fr Lombardi is right to call for an objective discussion.

  23. You’re using a false analogy, Joe: “doctors, psychoanalysts and priests cannot be dragooned as police snitches without grave damage to all their clients and to their healing role.” Giving absolution to a pedophile in a confessional is not like giving medicine to an AIDS sufferer in a clinic or treating a kleptomaniac in a therapist’s office. Absolution does not “cure” the pedophile, nor does it treat his “affliction.” I read the Mary Kenny article you linked to, and it is perfectly clear that she argues a false analogy. If the sacrament of reconciliation could cure or help prevent another “outbreak” of the “disease” of sexual predation, then the priest, like the physician, ought to provide full confidentiality. Protecting the healing environment of the confessional– on analogy with a medical clinic– is the only MORAL reason Kenny offers against the new disclosure law, and this reason simply fails on the facts.

    There are two serious moral consequences of not reporting a confession of child abuse: the abuser is free to continue abusing, and the victims and the state are denied justice. Neither consequence should be acceptable to citizens. The Catholic Church can continue, of course, to defend the seal of confession for criminals, but there is a risk of criminal prosecution of priests involved now. That’s all!

  24. Allegations remain just that until tried in a court of law. If, of course, they are not reported then that is what the remain; allegations. Mons O’Callaghan is said to have opposed the agreed course of action in these cases. It could be argued that it was then his Christian duty to resign from a role where reporting of allegations was the agreed position.

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