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 here has repeatedly been convulsed.
This set the scene for politicians in a number of states ( New Hampshire and Connecticut were two others) to demand the passage of a law requiring the breaking of the seal of confession -- its absolute guarantee of privacy.
Our Government has embarked on a similar course, to very little opposition so far, although this may change when the relevant bill is published in the next few months and the issue comes to a head.
As in those American states, the background is the clerical-abuse scandals. But the Government 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, who were urged on by their bishops.
A few days ago, Cardinal Sean Brady delivered a talk 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.
"For example, the inviolability of the seal of confession is so fundamental to the very nature of the sacrament that any proposal that undermines that inviolability is a challenge to the right of every Catholic to freedom of religion and conscience."
Unlike his US counterparts, he did not ask Irish Catholics to write to their politicians in protest, but that he raised the issue at all was too much for the 'Irish Times', which attacked his remarks in a leader yesterday. 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 and clergy 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 an absolutely vital and integral part of their faith.
Catholics believe that 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 and 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 and ride roughshod over them, then religious freedom really is in peril.
There is another reason why the Government should reconsider its proposal -- a strictly practical and utilitarian one. It will do no good and may 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.
THIS is why it was completely nonsensical of the 'Irish Times' in its leader yesterday to raise the case of Michael Joseph McArdle, a former Catholic priest in Australia who says he confessed 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?
But 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, such as Britain during penal times, or in totalitarian states, which is to say, in states motivated by a wish to put Catholics in their place.
Does the Government really wish to add Ireland to that list?
Hopefully, as in New Hampshire, Maryland and Connecticut, wiser heads will prevail here in the end.