Sacrificing secrecy may be the only moral choice
Are Catholic priests ever right to break their sacred vow on keeping confessional secrets, asks Alf McCreary
One of the most difficult questions facing a Catholic priest is to decide whether or not to give the police and state authorities the information he has obtained in the confessional box.
This thorny issue has been highlighted by the Londonderry cleric, Fr Paddy O'Kane, who has claimed that priests would go to jail rather than contravene Canon law, which rules that it is wrong for the confessor to make the penitent known, for any reason.
This looming conflict between a priest's conscience and the demands of the state has been created by the Republic's justice minister, Alan Shatter, who intends to introduce legislation which would compel priests to pass on information from all their sources in order to assist child protection.
The Irish government's intention to take such sweeping action follows a blazing row between the Taioseach, Enda Kenny, and the Vatican in the wake of the Cloyne report.
This report revealed that the diocese's former bishop, Dr John Magee, had failed to follow the child protection rules established in 2009 and did not pass on to the authorities allegations of child sexual abuse in Cloyne.
In a stinging attack, the Taioseach said that the Cloyne report highlighted "the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day".
Subsequently, the Vatican, in an unusual step, recalled its Papal Nuncio from Dublin "for further briefing" and a successor has not yet been named.
It is against this background of unprecedented strain between Dublin and the Vatican that priests like Fr O'Kane from Derry are having to face the fact that they may be required by Irish law to pass on to the police any information about child abuse they may obtain in the confessional box.
Many people would argue that there is no question about it - priests should do everything they can to protect children.
If that means that a Catholic priest, after hearing confession, must pass on the name of someone who has admitted child sexual abuse - or the identity of someone else involved in abuse - then so be it.
However, Fr O'Kane is clear where his duty lies. He says: "In a criminal matter, a priest may encourage a penitent to surrender to the authorities voluntarily.
"However, this is the most that a priest can do. We cannot directly, or indirectly, disclose the crime to anyone."
Using that argument, a priest is not unlike a journalist who refuses to reveal his sources - and journalists have been jailed for doing just that.
If the Republic's government insists on the same measures, Irish priests may also face the prospect of going to jail.
However, this would be counter-productive for the Dublin government as it would turn the priests into martyrs instead of putting the pressure on their conscience to reveal what they know about child abuse - as any other public-minded citizen would do.
Though Irish priests feel strongly about their right to maintain silence over confession, they may also have less sympathy than they might expect from the public, which is so disillusioned about the Catholic Church's failure to deal properly with the scandal of child sex abuse.
This week, Fr Brendan Hoban, a founder member of the Association of Catholic Priests, underlined this disillusion.
He said: "The difficult truth at present is that bishops are not believed, or trusted. Even if they said the Our Father, there would be something wrong with it."
Fr Hoban added: "Old men in black suits conjure up frightening, not reassuring images. Being Catholic is the last great stigma."
The attitude of the Catholic laity is changing fast and the priests would do well to consider that many of their flock might now expect them to divulge all they know about the scandal of clerical child sex abuse - no matter where they obtain that information.
Duty and morality should go hand-in-hand.