Law of the Land Is Unambiguous, Says Children's Minister

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Byline: Senan Molony Political Editor

CHILDREN'S Minister Frances Fitzgerald has ruled out exempting the confessional from the regulations on the mandatory reporting of child abuse.

Her remarks follow the Church's watchdog on clerical child abuse, Ian Elliot, saying there should be some room provided to allow priests to keep details they hear in the confession box confidential.

But the minister backed the Taoiseach's stark warning yesterday that one rule will apply to every individual in Ireland. She said: 'I'm not concerned, neither is the Government, about the internal laws, the rules governing any body.

'This is about the law of the land.

It's about child protection. Are we saying ... if a child is at risk of child sexual abuse that should not be reported? We cannot say that.' She insisted: 'The law of the land is clear and unambiguous.' The Government is preparing to bring updated child protection guidelines into law and to make it mandatory for organisations to follow the rules. Under the laws, any suspected case of abuse must be reported, while under other reforms being prepared by Justice Minister Alan Shatter, anyone found to have withheld information on a crime against a child will face up to five years in prison.

Miss Fitzgerald's new protocols for the 'Children First' document that was first published in 1999 do not amount to major changes - but she insists that there is now a political will to see them pursued. While Mr Elliot, of the National Board for Safeguarding Children, said he welcomed the legislation, he said confessional privilege was accepted and recognised in other jurisdictions: 'There is scope for accepting the seal of the confessional (sacerdotal privilege) as being something that should be recognised, because it is so central to the faith of the Catholic church.' The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 1967 in Great Britain and Northern Ireland makes it an offence not to pass on knowledge of an indictable offence. But there is an exemption for the confession box.

'Rather than challenge it, and get into a situation of confrontation, let's actually look to accommodate it, and learn from the experiences of other legal systems,' Mr Elliot continued, while admitting that the same 1967 legislation in Britain did not give exemptions to doctors or lawyers who could also claim patient or client privilege. …