Irish legislation to curb abuse would put confession seal under threat

A scathing report into an Irish diocese that failed to observe the bishops’ own guidelines on clerical sex abuse could mean that priests will in the future have to disclose evidence they learn in the confessional. 

The report into the Diocese of Cloyne, which was completed by Judge Yvonne Murphy last December but not published by the government until mid-July, follows devastating earlier probes of the Ferns diocese (2005), Irish residential institutions (2009) and an earlier report by Judge Murphy into the Dublin archdiocese (2009). 

But unlike these, which concerned decades-old abuse, the Cloyne Report covers the period between 1996, when the bishops introduced new strict guidelines, and December 2008, when alarm was first raised about Cloyne by the Church’s own watchdog.

Bishop failed to act                                                       

Bishop Magee

That month the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church accused Bishop John Magee of overseeing practices that were “inadequate and, in some respects, dangerous.” That accusation led the Irish government to extend the remit of the Murphy Commission into Dublin archdiocese to include Cloyne, a rural diocese in County Cork to which Bishop Magee — a secretary to three popes — had been appointed in 1987. In March 2009 Bishop Magee relinquished control of the diocese to allow the Murphy Commission to investigate. 

The 400-page report reveals that the diocese failed to act on nine complaints against priests between 1996 and 2005 that “very clearly” should have been reported. “The most serious lapse was the failure to report the two cases in which the alleged victims were minors,” it notes. 

Murphy is damning of Bishop Magee’s “inertia,” noting that he “took little or no active interest in the management of clerical sex abuse cases until 2008.” Before then he delegated responsibility to Cloyne’s vicar-general, Msgr. Denis O’Callaghan, who “did not approve of the requirement to report [allegations] to the civil authorities” and “stymied” the implementation of the bishops’ child protection policy. 

Msgr. O’Callaghan told the commission he was “very disappointed” with the 1996 guidelines which were too “rule-led” and lacking a pastoral approach. But that did not mean he followed canonical processes, either. The commission found that there was a “haphazard and sometimes sloppy” approach to canonical investigations. Yet “it was clear from his evidence that, in most cases, he believed the complaints, which make his failure to implement his own Church’s policy all the more surprising.” 

‘Freedom to ignore’

The report claims that Msgr. O’Callaghan’s reluctance to report allegations to civil authorities received support from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy. Because the Congregation had not recognized the bishops’ 1996 guidelines, believing them incompatible with canon law, this “effectively gave individual Irish bishops the freedom to ignore the procedures” and to “comfort and support” priests who “dissented from the stated Irish Church policy.” The commission also denounced the lack of help it had received in its research from the apostolic nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, who told Judge Murphy he was “unable to assist” her. 

The Cloyne report also discloses that, after the December 2008 Church report that first brought to light the failures in Cloyne, there was sharp disagreement among the bishops over whether Bishop Magee should resign. At an emergency meeting of the Irish bishops’ conference in January 2009, “there were strong opinions on both sides,” with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin strongly in favor and Cardinal Seán Brady of Armagh opposed to the idea. But following the meeting, Cardinal Brady asked Bishop Magee to step down. 

Responding to the findings last week, Bishop Magee apologized and took full responsibility. “I accept in its entirety the commission’s view that the primary responsibility for the failure to fully implement the Church procedures in the diocese lay with me,” he told journalists. 

Cardinal Brady said the Cloyne Report was “another dark day in the history of the response of Church leaders to the cry of children abused by Church personnel” and expressed his “shame and sorrow” at the “grave errors of judgement” and “serious failures of leadership” identified in the report. The one positive aspect, he said, was that it was the Church itself which had first spotlighted the failures in Cloyne.

“The Church-established structures of review and accountability have been proven to work effectively,” he said in a statement. 

Prison threatened

In the wake of the headlines generated by the report, Ireland’s prime minister, Enda Kenny, announced that canon law would in future not be allowed to supersede state law. He said he intended to introduce legislation to make it mandatory for priests to reveal details of child abuse, even if they become known in the confessional, with failure to disclose the evidence punishable by up to five years in prison. 

Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore said it was “unreal to suggest that the seal of confession has prevented the reporting of the abuse of children,” while Father P.J. Madden, spokesman for the Association of Catholic Priests, said priests would disobey the law rather than break the confessional seal, which he said was “above and beyond all else.” 

Austen Ivereigh writes from England.