New law criminalises outdoor confessions

New law criminalises outdoor confessions Fr Paddy McCafferty takes outdoor confession in west Belfast, before restrictions were lifted in the North.

The law introduced last week on religious gatherings has made it illegal even to hold outdoor confession, according to a law professor.

Professor Oran Doyle, from the law school at Trinity College Dublin, said the new provision, SI 171/2021, applies to both indoor and outdoor events and “that’s where it is different from restrictions on other events”.

“So for example, if a priest were to do the Sacrament of Confession with one parishioner outside, socially distanced, that would be a criminal offence but if the priest were to meet the parishioner for a chat, that would not be a criminal offence because that’s dealt with under one of the other provisions of the regulations.”


Speaking on RTÉ’s News at One he said that the new statutory instrument signed off by the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly seemingly specifically targets religious gatherings – despite the minister claiming otherwise.

Prof. Doyle said the minister’s claim “can’t be correct because previously in the legislation there was a clear ban on any events in your household and there was also a ban in what they described as relevant events, which in the law has a very clear definition as events for social, recreational purposes”.

“So most types of events were already banned, but religious events weren’t and they seem to be the most obvious thing that is caught by this change of the law that was made last week.”

The Church is seeking legal advice on the issue. Prof. Doyle was asked whether the law could be effectively challenged on constitutional grounds, he said there’s “always a possibility” and courts in other countries have intervened.

He speculated that as similar activities are treated in the same way “it’s unlikely that there will be a successful challenge”. However, he said “if we see things happening where there’s easing of restrictions in other areas going ahead of easing of restrictions in relation to religious services then the possibility for a successful challenge becomes stronger”.