Belfast Telegraph

Removing the confessional seal is a perilous precedent

By David Quinn

Eight years ago, the US State of Maryland considered passing a law that would have required priests to break the seal of confession if the sin of child abuse was made known to them via the sacrament of confession.

During the previous year, 2002, the Catholic Church in America had been convulsed by the child-abuse scandals in much the same way that the Church in Ireland has repeatedly been convulsed.

This set the scene for politicians in New Hampshire and Connecticut to demand the passage of a law requiring the breaking of the seal of confession.

The Republic's Government has now embarked on a similar course, to very little opposition so far.

As in those American states, the background is the clerical abuse scandals.

But Taoiseach Enda Kenny should note what happened in Maryland and New Hampshire and Connecticut.

In each case, the bid to attack the seal of confession was defeated - partly because of a backlash by thousands of Catholic voters, urged on by their bishops.

Cardinal Sean Brady delivered a talk last week in which he described the attack on the seal of confession as an attack on freedom of religion.

He said: "Freedom to participate in worship and to enjoy the long-established rites of the Church is so fundamental that any intrusion upon it is a challenge to the very basis of a free society."

Unlike his US counterparts, Cardinal Brady did not ask Irish Catholics to write to their politicians in protest. But the fact that he raised the issue at all was too much for The Irish Times, which attacked his remarks in a leader. It seems that Catholics are not even allowed to defend their own sacraments.

It's hard to know how many Catholics would have responded if Cardinal Brady had issued a call to arms. But if he and his fellow bishops did it often enough, clearly enough and loudly enough, then there would be a response and politicians might then have to sit up and pay attention.

However, it was not muscle power alone that caused legislators in the aforementioned American states to back down in the end; it was also because wiser heads prevailed.

For a start, the proposal is - as Sean Brady has said - an attack on religious freedom because, for Catholics, access to the sacraments is a vital and integral part of their faith.

Catholics believe they have a divinely ordained right to confess their sins via the sacrament of confession under an absolute assurance of privacy. They believe that the state cannot - must not - interfere with this right under any circumstances. Of course, a lot of people will dismiss this as so much mumbo-jumbo.

But if we can dismiss other people's most sacred beliefs and practices so contemptuously, then religious freedom really is in peril.

There is another reason why Enda Kenny should reconsider this proposal, a strictly practical and utilitarian one: it will do no good.

It may even do harm, because no child-abuser, knowing that a priest is legally obliged to pass on his crime to the police, will go to confession in the first place.

Take the case of Michael Joseph McArdle, a former Catholic priest in Australia, who says he confessed to child-abuse on numerous occasions to numerous priests over 25 years.

Can anyone seriously believe he would have gone near a confessional if he thought that his confessor might then go to the police?

By effectively barring a child-abuser from attending confession, the state will rob confessors of the opportunity to persuade offenders to hand themselves over to the civil authorities.

This is just one reason why the proposed law is far more likely to do harm than good.

Indeed, it is extremely doubtful whether a single crime has ever been prevented by laws requiring the breaking of the seal of confession. This partially explains why such laws are so rare around the world.

It is also why, historically speaking, laws of this sort have been found almost exclusively in extremely anti-Catholic countries, or in totalitarian states.

Does Mr Kenny really wish to add the RepubIic to that list?

Hopefully, as in New Hampshire, Maryland and Connecticut, wiser heads will prevail in the end.

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