I have had a lot of reaction to my disturbing debate on RTE’s Liveline with host Joe Duffy and a Catholic priest, Father Gearoid O Doncha, who insists that he would not report the rape of a child to the Gardai if he heard about it at confession. Here is audio and a transcript of the discussion.
Joe: let me bring in Mick Nugent. Mick, good afternoon. You’ve heard this argument, Mick, I know you’re involved in Atheist Ireland, about the confessional. That this new bill that was introduced yesterday, children first, says quite categorically that Gardai, social workers, psychologists, teachers, clerics working with children, if they become aware of abuse in any circumstance, they must, mandatory is the word, they must report to the Gardai. Now, you’ve heard the argument that the seal of the confessional is paramount. What do you think?
MN: It’s one of these things where the Catholic church thinks that its own internal rules trump the law of the land, which clearly they don’t. And you’d also have to wonder whether these people have ever seen a five-year-old child, or a seven-year-old child, and do they realise how small and vulnerable they are, and how much they need protection? And the idea that you would put some sort of abstract notion of the seal of the confessional over just normal morality? Normal morality is how we treat other beings, are we kind to them, are we fair to them, do we have empathy, do we have compassion, do we avoid causing them suffering? And without religion, we would instinctively know what is the right thing to do in that situation. But with religion, religion corrupts the sense of morality that these priests would otherwise have. And there’s a saying that I think encapsulates this, which is that without religion, good people will do good things and bad people will do bad things, but with religion, you get good people doing bad things while believing that they are doing good things. And that’s the problem that this causes.
Joe: Okay, the most articulate voice explaining this argument has been Father Gearoid O Donchu. Good afternoon. You’re a retired parish priest living in Kerry at the moment. And you believe, Father Gearoid that the confessional is paramount?
Father G: That’s right. The seal of the confessional allows for no opening whatever. What you’re told in confession stays there regardless.
Joe: So take scenarios then. The one that Mick Nugent just mentioned there. A young child, a five-year-old child, comes in to the confessional and says, I’m being abused by my teacher, father, brother, stranger. What do you do?
Father G: In that case, one would ask the child to come to oneself outside the confessional. And if you succeeded in doing that, then you could proceed as one would expect any citizen to do.
Joe: But if, say a child’s communion is coming up, a child of communion age, and coming up to their first communion, when they make their first confession, and they do say something to you in the confessional? You would say to them, I want you to step outside of the confessional and say to me?
Father G: Not just step outside, but they could come to me later, or come to somebody who is responsible, who would then take the matter further. Whereas as long as it remains confessional material, there is nothing the priest can do with it. He is absolutely bound to confidentiality.
Joe: What do you think of that, Mick?
MN: I’ve heard Father Gearoid elsewhere on the radio today talking about this, and he said that, if somebody told him that they had poisoned the wine that he was using for mass in confession, that he would go out and drink it, because he would have to act as if he didn’t know what he had heard in confession. But what arises from that is, would that mean that he would leave the rest of the wine for somebody else to drink and die, in which case he is acting immorally? Or would he drink it all, or throw the rest out, in order to save other people, in which case he is acting as if he did know?
Joe: Okay let’s put that to Father Gearoid, because that is one of the most fascinating points that you made this morning, I was listening to you talking to Chris Donoghue on NewsTalk, Father Gearoid. You did say that, if somebody came into the confessional and said to you, I have just poisoned the altar wine, you would go out and drink the altar wine.
Father G: I would first of all try to persuade the person to change the altar wine, or to go out and spill it or whatever. But if the person refused, and this was in confession, it was a matter of confession, then I would do what I suggested.
Joe: You would go out and drink it.
MN: And would you leave the rest of the wine then for somebody else to drink and die? Somebody inadvertently doing it, because you haven’t warned them?
Father G: I would behave as I would if I haven’t heard of it at all.
MN: Well, that’s shocking. That shows that you’ve no sense of morality.
Joe: Let’s tease that out a bit more, Mick. Father Gearoid, you’re saying that you would drink the poisoned wine?
Father G: That’s right.
MN: But you would leave the rest? You would only drink the amount that you would normally drink? You wouldn’t drink the rest of it?
Father G: I would do nothing different than normally.
MN: So you would knowingly leave the rest of the poisoned wine for somebody else to inadvertently drink? One of your colleagues, a priest saying the next mass?
Father G: Yes. Because I would do nothing on the basis of what I was told in the confessional.
MN: Well, I think that anybody listening to this will understand that that is a deeply immoral position. That, on the basis of what you believe the creator of the universe is saying to you, you will allow another innocent priest to die by drinking altar wine that you are knowingly leaving there that is poisoned? Or, more seriously, as this is an actual case that we are talking about, you would leave vulnerable children to be raped on the basis of not giving information that you know, that could protect those children from being raped? It’s absolutely shocking. And it shows that religion corrupts our natural sense of morality.
Joe: Gearoid, you understand why you what you’re saying is controversial?
Father G: Yes, I understand that people are failing to understand…
MN: Disagreeing, not failing to understand.
Joe: No, let him finish, Mick.
Father G: What I’m saying is that what I’m told in confession remains there. No action of mine will ever be based on what I am told in confession.
Joe: So what you are told in confession, it is as if you have never heard it?
Father G: That’s right.
Joe: So what is the purpose?
Father G: In confession, the priest is acting as a facilitator or mediator between God and the sinner, giving forgiveness, giving God’s forgiveness.
MN: Can I ask another question, Joe?
Joe: Yes, Mick.
MN: If that is the case, then, why would you try to persuade the person in the confessional to do the right thing? If that is your only role?
Father G: Sorry, is that question to me?
MN: Yes, it is to you. Why would you, while within the confessional, try to persuade this person to report their crimes to the relevant authorities, or to tell you outside of confession? If your only role is to listen in God’s place and give forgiveness, why would you take that step within confession? Is that not abusing your role within confession?
Father G: I don’t think that I said at any point that my only role was to listen. I did say that my role would be to counsel the person, to try to persuade the person to do the right thing, to go and tell the appropriate authorities what they have just told me. But if they refuse to do that, I then act as if I have never heard it.
MN: This, then, is why we need these kind of laws. To ensure that that type of immorality doesn’t take hold in the land.
Joe: In fairness, Father Gearoid, you are basing what you are saying on Canon Law. This is Canon Law as far as you’re concerned?
Father G: That’s right, that’s right.
Joe: You’re not making this up yourself? This is your very clear and very vivid interpretation of the seal of the confessional?
Father G: That’s right. And I believe that 100% of priests would agree with me.
MN: They probably would, but if you look at Canon Law, at the reason in Canon Law that sexually abusing a child is a crime, it is not a crime against the child, it is a crime against the biblical commandment forbidding adultery. And the Catholic church in Canon Law puts child abuse, puts sexually abusing a child, on the same level of Canon Law crime as ordaining a woman as a priest. It is such a warped sense of morality that is not surprising that it ends up in these type of mental contortions. And on top of that, we have the Catholic Church in Ireland, with not the integrity that you are showing to your own beliefs here, but the Cloyne report showed that senior Catholic clerics had positively lied and positively misled tribunals about the sexual abuse of children. I mean, it is just a shocking institution in terms of the type of morality that it promotes, the suffering that it causes because of promoting that morality, and then it claims to be the source of morality while it is acting so immorally.
Father G: Well, all I can do is repeat. It is like, I don’t want to parallel to things now, but if you go to a psychiatrist, if you go to a counsellor or a solicitor, then in the very same way they are not allowed to, without your permission, to carry your tale any further.
Joe: But are you not saying, Gearoid that, even if somebody said I have abused the child, you’re saying that even if you said to them, can I tell the police, that you wouldn’t, because it’s in the confessional?
Father G: No, no, if they give me permission to tell the story, I certainly will.
Joe: But in the confessional, you say it’s about forgiveness, and the Lord’s forgiveness. Are there some sins, that people admit in a confessional, that you cannot forgive? For example, if somebody came in and said, Father, I have had an abortion? Is that not a reserved sin? Have you not got to say, well you have to go…
Father G: That is true.
Joe: Explain reserved sin then for the listeners, if you would.
Father G: I have the power of forgiveness of sin. I get that from the church, through my bishop. But he reserves certain sins to himself.
Joe: Such as?
Father G: Such as abortion. So I cannot forgive the sin of abortion. Without getting the persons permission to write or speak to the Bishop, and getting the appropriate authority then to forgive the sin.
MN: But you can forgive somebody for raping a child?
Father G: Sorry?
MN: You can forgive somebody for raping a child?
Father G: I believe so, yes.
MN: Well, this is another problem. It was one of the things that a priest who was convicted of child abuse said in media reports a few years ago, that he had been continually sexually abusing children, and every time he did it, he would go to confession, knowing that by going to confession he would get a clean slate to continue doing it again. He referred to it as being like a magic wand. And this is the type of horrific effects that you get, in terms of the actual suffering of small children, when people believe that you can just say, yes, I forgive you, and there are no further consequences for you continuing to rape children. It’s utterly shocking.
Father G: No, I cannot give absolution to anybody without a proper desire or will to better oneself. If someone comes in week after week saying the same thing, that they have done this, then you have to question have they got what we call a purpose of amendment. If they don’t have the purpose of amendment, then you cannot forgive the sin.
MN: Yes, but you don’t know how long that purpose of amendment is going to last. And we do know, in that particular case, and it was a priest, that he knew that he would say, and he meant it at the time, but he knew that he could change his mind in the future, because that is what he continually did.
Father G: If such a thing were to happen to me, then I suppose I would continue to give absolution, on the basis that I accepted the person is not wasting his time coming saying the same thing every week.
Joe: But Mick, do you not have any admiration for the fact that, what Father Gearoid is saying, it is grounded in Canon Law, he is actually giving examples, and he is answering the examples or the questions or the scenarios that you are putting forward to him, and this is the reality of his priestly vows. And they’re not comfortable for some people to hear, but these are the realities of the priestly vows, and his arguments, regardless of what you think of them, are totally consistent.
MN: They are, yes. As were the arguments in the minds of the people who flew airplanes into the twin towers, who thought that they were doing that because the creator of the universe told them to do it. This is the difficulty with religion, is that it can give you this conviction, because you genuinely believe that you are doing what the creator of the universe wants you to do, it gives you this conviction that allows you to do things that otherwise you would instinctively know is morally abhorrent. And so, while it is consistent, it is consistently immoral.
Father G: Well, could I just say this there? Let’s say that the rule of silence didn’t exist, then nobody would come to confession who had these serious matters.
Joe: Isn’t that the point, Mick?
MN: Yes, and what they should be doing, is they should be going to jail rather than to confession if they have raped children.
Father G: I agree with you, I agree with you completely.
MN: I mean, the idea that going to confession is a suitable way of dealing with raping children is abhorrent.
Joe: Father Barry, I know that you’re retired now, but you’ve made these arguments before, I suspect? You’ve argued this out, and you have thought it out, and you’ve studied it out?
Father G: I suppose I studied it nearly 60 years ago.
Joe: And are there any of the arguments that have them put to you, when you answer these stark scenarios, has there been any argument that has minded you to change your opinion?
Father G: No, I’m afraid not. I would love to be able to. Anybody who comes in, somebody comes in saying they’re raping their daughter or niece or next door neighbour who is seven years old, now that kind of thing causes the hair to rise to the back of your neck, so you do your best to persuade them that they should come clean, but if they refuse, then there is nothing you can do, your hands are absolutely tied.
Joe: And have you heard that in a confessional?
Father G: I don’t remember anything that I’ve heard in the confessional.
MN: Well it sounds as if you have, from what you said before. You described it as if you had heard it. Joe isn’t asking you any specific details of what you have heard in the confessional. He’s just saying, in general, have you been in that situation, where you have had to maintain your vow of silence with regards to child abuse?
Father G: As I say, I don’t permit myself to think of anything that I ever heard in confession. It’s not mine, it is between the individual and his creator.
MN: But Joe wasn’t talking about individuals. He was just talking about in general, have you been in that situation? That’s talking about you. Have you been in that situation, where you have had to not report child abuse?
Father G: If I was, then I did not report it.
MN: And were you?
Father G: I don’t know.
MN: Ah, you do know. Now, you’re saying that you won’t tell us, but that’s not the same thing. You do know. You’re not telling the truth when you say that you don’t know, because you do know.
Father G: Well, all right, let’s rephrase it. Anything that occurred in the confessional is not something that I can never discuss.
MN: But you are discussing it now. You are discussing it abstractly now, so you can take that extra step, while still discussing abstractly, talking about yourself rather than talking about the people who have been to confession, have you ever been told something about child abuse that you have had to not report because of the seal of the confessional?
Father G: Again, all that I can do is repeat that whatever I have been told in confession remains there.
Joe: It is as if you never heard it.
Father G: Yes.
MN: I’ll take that as a yes, then.
Joe: Father Gearoid, I know that you’re retired, and that might, I just see some comments here, that might lead people to think that you are simply sitting in an armchair and making these arguments up. You’re not, these are all based, as far as you’re concerned, on your priestly vows and Canon Law, and this is the scenario. Now what happens, when this law, now there are no sanctions outlined as yet, but when it becomes law, it will be illegal, if you hear it in the confessional, not to report child abuse for example, will you still not report it?
Father G: I will still not report it.
MN: It’s actually more than that, Joe. There is already a law about that, the Criminal Justice Withholding Information Act 2012 is already there about that. This is a new bill about reporting suspicions about abuse and neglect. He’s already obliged to report it.
Joe: Well, in fairness to Gearoid, he has made it crystal clear, Mick, and I know you’ve been very strong, but Gearoid has been strong as well. I know that there are different age groups involved here, but has Gearoid not made his understanding of the position that he would be in as a priest under Canon Law, has he not made it crystal clear?
MN: Of course he has. And I think that we can take further than his statement that he doesn’t know, I think we can assume that he does know, because he is a man of integrity, that it was probably just a slip when he said that he didn’t know.
Joe: Okay, Father Gearoid O Donchu, based in Kerry, thanks indeed, and Mick Nugent in Dublin.