PRIESTS will be jailed for up to five years if they fail to report paedophiles to gardai -- even if they are told of the abuse in the confession box.
The penalty is contained in tough new laws being introduced after a Commission of Investigation report on the Diocese of Cloyne revealed yet another major cover-up of clerical sex abuse.
The damning Cloyne Report found the Co Cork diocese and its bishop ignored Irish church guidelines requiring all suspected molestation cases to be reported to gardai.
It also found the Vatican encouraged this concealment.
The Government, which ordered the two-year probe into cover-ups over the 13-year period 1996-2009 in Cloyne, also warned that its findings suggested there was a continuing danger to children's welfare in parishes across the country.
The move to jail priests who fail to report abuse will cause huge concern among Catholic priests, who could face excommunication if they reveal anything they are told in the confessional.
The mandatory reporting requirement will also prove difficult for doctors and lawyers, who are usually obliged to keep conversations with patients and clients confidential.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter vowed to bring in the new laws last night after the report revealed how abuse allegations dating back to the 1960s were covered up at the highest levels in the diocese.
Compiled at a cost of €1.9m by a commission led by Judge Yvonne Murphy, the report:
•Pinpointed Bishop John Magee as the person primarily responsible for the diocese's failure to report abuse claims to gardai and the Health Service Executive (HSE).
•Found Dr Magee continually breached agreed child protection guidelines over a period of 13 years between 1996 and 2009.
•Uncovered how nine out of 15 alleged abuse cases reported to the diocese between 1996 and 2005 were not referred to the gardai.
The report also revealed how Dr Magee himself came under investigation for alleged inappropriate behaviour with a former altar boy.
The Director of Public Prosecutions decided not to press charges following a garda inquiry.
There was also criticism of the gardai in three cases, including one where it appears the abuse by a priest of two young girls was never investigated despite details being given to a senior garda.
Dr Magee, who was last night believed to be in hiding in the US, issued a statement apologising for failing "all those who were abused by priests in the Diocese of Cloyne".
An apology was also issued by his former second in command, Monsignor Denis O'Callaghan, who also failed to refer allegations to the gardai.
"I am sorry and I am saddened that my approach in many instances caused further hurt for people who needed the fullest support and assistance," he said.
The alleged activities of 18 priests -- none of whom were ever convicted -- are detailed in the report.
In a number of cases, gardai only learned of allegations against the priests when it was too late to bring a successful prosecution.
Mr Shatter confirmed the new legislation, due to be published in the autumn, would apply to priests hearing confessions.
The new law is expected to face a backlash from the Catholic Church. As recently as 2007, a Catholic priest in the Philippines was excommunicated for revealing details made to him during confession.
There was no immediate response from the church hierarchy to the new laws proposed by Mr Shatter.
The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, said the report represented "another dark day in the history of the response of church leaders to the cry of children abused by church personnel".
'A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he travelled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.' (Luke 10:30-37)