Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, April 30, 2012

A law student's thoughts on proposals in Ireland to compromise Confession

Here are some thoughts, from a student in my "Catholic Social Thought and the Law" seminar, on proposed legislation in Ireland:

Sending Priests to Jail for… Well, being Priests: A Defense of the Sanctity of the Confessional and of the Church

            According to a news article issued April 27, 2012 (full story available here: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/irish-bishop-reaffirms-seal-of-confession-amid-legal-controversy/), Catholic priests in Ireland will soon potentially face criminal sanctions if they refuse to violate the sanctity of the confessional, due to pending legislation. Specifically, priests will face up to ten years in prison if they fail to report sex crimes. Irish Justice Minister, Alan Shatter, attempted to justify the proposed legislation by indicating that he does not, “know how anyone could live with their conscience” if they did not report a sex offender to the gardai (Irish police). Although the Federal Rules of Evidence in the United States allow members of the clergy to invoke privilege to refuse to testify about communications that take place under the seal of the confessional, this blatant disregard for the teachings of the Catholic Church in Ireland is quite concerning. In fact, should the legislation pass, not only would the Irish prisons become saturated with Catholic priests, but the entire sacrament of confession (not to mention thousands of Catholic souls) would be compromised.

            According to the Catholic Church as indicated in the Council of Trent, the sacrament of confession, “as a means of regaining grace and justice,” is “necessary at all times” in order to safeguard our souls from sin. Importantly, according to the Council of Trent, this sacrament is as necessary to salvation as is Baptism. It is vital to the functioning of the Catholic Church that the sins confessed during this sacrament are kept, at all times, confidential by the priest to whom the sinner has confessed. If the confessor knew that the priest would be compelled to turn him or her into the police, the person would be far less likely to partake in the sacrament. Moreover, many priests would rather abide by the seal of the confessional than adhere to the law of man, thus exposing many priests to criminal sanctions. Thus, numerous devout but human (and therefore sinful) Catholics would be dissuaded from confessing their sins if the proposed Irish legislation were to become commonplace. Consequently, their souls will be jeopardized and priests will be put in the position either to face 10 years in prison or be excommunicated from the Church. This proposed legislation is insulting to the Church, as it disregards the sanctity of Her sacraments and trivializes the role of Her priests.


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I think the key sentence in the linked article is, "The priest also observed that an obligation to break the seal was 'something that cannot be enforced' in practice, due to the anonymity of most confessions." A number of states in the US have laws that mandate reporting of child abuse from which clergy are not exempt. I don't believe there has ever been a situation in which a priest has been pressured to break the seal of confession. Legislation that would require, even in theory, a priest to break the seal of confession is odious, but I can't imagine any priests will wind up in legal jeopardy from it. I have a feeling that mandatory reporting laws are much more problematic for therapists.

Posted by: David Nickol | Apr 30, 2012 11:28:47 AM