Confessional seal threats would be unconstitutional here – expert

Confessional seal threats would be unconstitutional here – expert

Attempts to compel priests to reveal information about abuse learned in Confession would be legally unsustainable and probably contrary to Ireland’s Constitution, a leading expert on constitutional law has said.

“If you’re given an undertaking at some point and then act to your detriment as a result of that undertaking, the law shouldn’t turn around and take that away from you,” UCC’s Dr Seán Ó Conaill told The Irish Catholic, adding that statements made in Confession would probably be of little evidential value.

“Unless you’re given a forensic level of detail, what weight can you really attach to it?” he asked. “It’s not going to work unless the priest is going to have intimate knowledge of the whole event.”


In addition, he said, a key constitutional matter to be considered is the principle of freedom of religion. “The other issue is the straightforward right to practice your religion,” he said, continuing, “Confession is a key part of being a Catholic, and this would be such an infringement on it you’d wonder if it is legitimate.”

Such a proposal would endanger other privileged relationships such as doctor-patient privilege and attorney-client privilege, he said.

Dr O Conaill’s comments follow reports that Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has recommended that legal protections for the confessional seal should be removed, and that Catholic priests must violate the seal of Confession if they hear about child sexual abuse.

The commission, which began work in 2013, issued its report on criminal justice on Monday, with one of  its 85 recommendations being that laws on reporting child sexual abuse “should exclude any existing excuse, protection or privilege in relation to religious confessions”.

Irish Government proposals in 2011 to compel priests to break the seal of Confession in such circumstances were criticised at the time by leading barrister Paul Anthony McDermott, who said the proposal made little sense when Confession was anonymous.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Frontline he added: “So if that law was passed as it is, it would almost certainly be found unconstitutional, because the first thing a court would say to the Government is, why are you breaking the seal of Confession for child abuse, but not murder?”