Colum Kenny: Law may let priests off the hook, but morality does not
The hierarchy must explain what a priest is to do with information learned in confession, writes Colum Kenny
Confession and redemption are big words. They are about the dark side of human nature, and about hoping that people can change.
So should Irish priests be sent to jail for up to five years if they fail to report to the gardai anything said in confession that indicates that an arrestable offence has been committed against a child or vulnerable adult? That is what the Government now appears to be proposing. And it has met resistance.
Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, "regent" of the Vatican's Apostolic Penitentiary, has reportedly said, "Ireland can approve all of the legal plans that it desires but it must know the church will never subject itself to the obligation of denouncing the confessor to civil authorities. Confession is a private matter that allows penitents to mend their ways and purify themselves."
So what would you do if you solemnly agreed to talk to someone in confidence and they told you something that indicated they were a continuing risk to other people?
This issue is real and complex. In the USA in 1989, a sinner with the striking name of Jesus Fornes told Fr Joseph Towle that he had killed Jose Rivera. Fr Towle tried to persuade Fornes to confess to authorities, but he never did. Two other men were convicted and each got 15 years in jail. After 10 years Fornes happened to die, and Fr Towle decided to come forward to help free the convicted duo.
So did Towle break the traditional seal of confession? For one thing Fornes was dead, although that is not generally considered a licence for priests to blab. For another, he claimed that he had merely given "pastoral counselling" to Fornes, rather than formally heard his confession, although he appears to have given him some kind of absolution or blessing.
If Towle did break the sacramental seal of confession, then he automatically excommunicated himself from his own church. And Christians may be very concerned about the idea that pastoral counselling is somehow less confidential than confession.
The priest's dilemma is shared by other professionals such as doctors, therapists and lawyers. Are they expected to fetch gardai whenever their clients or patients show any sign of having committed a serious offence? Or is sex abuse so especially heinous that all other considerations lapse?
To people who have no respect for religion, this is a no-brainer. Priests should be forced to tell. And some people simply do not get the idea of a priest purporting to absolve you of guilt. Many more Irish today than in previous generations never darken the door of a confessional. They can find the whole notion of talking to a stranger about wrong acts weird. Even for older people, the Irish church's former obsession with sexual lists has soured their take on this sacrament.
But others find confession a sort of free therapy, and some see it as a way to realign one's whole life in accordance with best principles and loving intentions. The priest in confession stands in for a forgiving God.
Yet God presumably knows better than some priests that child abusers cannot always shrug off their evil habit by an act of will. Their resolution to sin no more can be as futile as that of an alcoholic or drug addict who fails to receive appropriate treatment. So while priests will always expect a sinner not only to repent but also to resolve to sin no more before absolving him or her of guilt, the fact is that even genuine resolution in such cases may be meaningless.
Should a priest then leave the confessional and report to gardai or the HSE what he has just heard? Maybe there ought to be CCTV at every place of confession, even perhaps hidden recorders? That would be the end of confession.
It is not quite what the Irish Government is now proposing. I have been fascinated by media reports of this issue since I first raised it this month at the press conference at which Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald launched new policies on child protection. Because, in fact, Minister Shatter avoided a direct answer and referred to his proposed legislation.
And the new law has two important qualifications.
The lesser one is that disclosure is required only where there is evidence of an "arrestable offence". This is not what it may seem, being a technical legal term referring only to any offence for which a person "not previously convicted may be punished by imprisonment for a term of five years or more".
The other qualification is substantial. It stipulates that there is no need to report such information if you have a "reasonable excuse" not to do so. Its definition of "reasonable excuse" is open-ended. It specifically includes "circumstances where the person in respect of whom the sexual offence concerned was committed makes it known that he or she does not want that offence, or information relating to that offence, to be disclosed".
That specific exception alone could lead to pressure being put on complainants to request confidentiality before a priest or therapist or doctor proceeds to discuss matters.
But it is the innocent word "include" (in the phrase "reasonable excuse may include") that opens the possibility of a priest or counsellor claiming that an expectation of confidentiality is a reasonable excuse. In Ireland judges have long treated the seal of confession as sacrosanct.
It is laws and not guidelines that matter at the end of the day. Minister Fitzgerald's Children's First guidance states: "The HSE Children and Family Services should always be informed when a person has reasonable grounds for concern that a child may have been, is being or is at risk of being abused or neglected." But should is not must.
Given that the guidelines include a long list of emotional as well as physical and sexual types of abuse, it is clear that they indicate best practice rather than cast-iron law. At 94 pages, the guidance provides more cover for a bureaucrat's back than handy reference for busy practitioners or volunteers. And nowhere in all that verbiage does the word "mandatory" (as in "mandatory reporting") appear, or "confession" for that matter.
But even if the law lets priests in the confessional off the hook, morality does not. Catholic Church authorities in Rome and elsewhere have shown themselves unable or unwilling to deal effectively with child abuse. An untrustworthy hierarchy must explain clearly and convincingly what is to happen when a priest in counselling or confession becomes aware of someone who is a danger to children.
Simply telling that sinner to go and not to sin again may leave children at risk of further rape, and it will not do. Absolution must be refused or suspended unless such sinners submit themselves to a verifiable regime of appropriate therapy. And how can such a regime work if doctors or therapists who deliver it are themselves obliged to blow the whistle to gardai on people who have come to them in confidence for help?