Ireland and the Seal of the Confessional

In the justified outrage following the release of the report on the handling of recent reports of sex abuse by priests in the Diocese of Cloyne, Ireland’s Justice Minister, Alan Shatter, is introducing a Bill to compel Irish priests to disclose the secrets of the confessional where pedophilia is mentioned: failure to do so could result in a five-year prison sentence. Comparisons have been made with psychotherapists and others mandated to report certain offenses – supporting such a mandate.  The theology of the inviolable seal of the confessional and its centrality to the sacrament argue against the mandate.

There’s an aspect of this law that hasn’t been discussed, and would probably come as a surprise to most of the Irish people.  If this law goes through, the vast majority of people who are reported are unlikely to be priests.  The vast majority of child sexual abuse is not carried out by priests. The perpetrator is much more likely to be a friend of the family – perhaps a single mom’s boyfriend – or even a family member; someone from the neighborhood, or a sports league, or some other social setting.  When the abuse has occurred within a family, the investigation often reveals that the child did tell an adult – but was told to keep quiet in the interest of family peace.

Does this affect the debate about the seal of the confessional? Not really.  But it does point to a problem that surpasses that of clergy abuse of children.  Children are sexualized in western societies – in advertising, in the scripts of television and movie drama, in the protection juvenile-appearing pornography as free speech. Roman Polansky and Michael Jackson kept their freedom for decades because their “tendencies” were deemed less important than their celebrity.  Many adults do not place children’s safety or needs first – they fail to report, and the children suffer.  Ireland – like the USA – needs to tackle the full range of child sexual abuse. That includes – but is far from limited to – the abuse and the failure to report that have happened within the Catholic Church.

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