The Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, has reiterated that priests will be compelled to break the Seal of Confession if they hear any information about child abuse.
Speaking in the Seanad on Tuesday in a debate about the Government's Children First legislation, which will make it a crime not to report information about child abuse, Mr Shatter said that no privilege accrued to priests on the basis of their office.
He said: “I will emphasise this point and cannot say more clearly that the legislation contains no express exemption that applies to a member of a religious faith.”
In response to a question by Senator Aideen Hayden about whether a statement made in a confessional was exempt from the proposed law, Mr Shatter said that such a statement would not be exempt.
However, he added: “The legislation gives no exemption to anybody. In the unlikely event of a paedophile exposing the priest to whom he or she made a confession of abusing a child in the confessional and did not report the matter to the Garda Síochána, I cannot guarantee this will result in a prosecution.
“This will not happen and this is why it is a theoretical issue in practical terms.”
In response to a further query from Senator Hayden, Mr Shatter also clarified that there was no exemption for journalists either.
Senator Jim Walsh said that the Seal of Confession was only a small part of the overall issue and that it would be wrong to focus exclusively on it.
Senator Walsh said that, in practical terms, useful information about an actual child abuser was unlikely to emerge in a confessional because “there is a degree of secrecy, often the confessor will be completely unaware of the identity of the penitent”.
However, Senator Walsh added: “If we have freedom of religion as a fundamental principle - we look at the number of Christians who are persecuted across the globe and those countries in which there is no freedom of religion - we transgress it at our peril in various ways.”
Mr Shatter agreed with Senator Walsh that there had been too much emphasis on the Seal of Confession.
He said that, while there had been “a series of horrendous incidents of abuse” perpetrated by members of the Church “we also know that children are far more likely to be abused in families by people they know and to a greater extent, the incidence of abuse is not as a result of anything to do with religious faiths, the Catholic Church or any other faith”.
He added that none of the investigations into clerical child abuse “arose from abuse that was disclosed to a priest in confession that was kept secret”.
He said: “It was all about abuse in all sorts of other circumstances that was not reported or abusers being in a position to continue abusing children and having multiple victims.
“Abuse of the sacerdotal privilege is a terribly interesting theoretical issue that excites some people outside this House but is not central to the legislation.”