by MICHAEL OTTO
A leading canon lawyer has warned that it is only a matter of time before New Zealand’s legal protection of priest-penitent privilege comes under strong challenge.
Good Shepherd College principal Msgr Brendan Daly issued this warning at the launch of his book Canon Law In Action at the St Columba Centre in Ponsonby on February 15.
Speaking at the launch, Msgr Daly noted how the seal of confession has been the topic of strong recent comment in Australia at a royal commission and in courts in Louisiana in the United States.
In the latter instance, Baton Rouge diocese fears a civil lawsuit connected with sexual abuse of a minor could force a priest to violate the seal of confession, or else go to jail.
Last month, the United States Supreme Court did not uphold a petition by the diocese of Baton Rouge and the priest against a previous unfavourable Lousiana state court ruling.
In Ireland, a child protection bill mandating reporting of abuse was published last year and it included clergy as mandatory reporters, but the bill was criticised for not stipulating sanctions.
At the Auckland launch, Msgr Daly, who is Associate Judicial Vicar of the Tribunal of the Catholic Church in New Zealand, forecast debate on the topic in this country.
“So we are certainly going to face quite strong challenges over the seal of confession in this country, because, as it stands at present, clergy have more protection from the law than probably most countries in the world,” Msgr Daly said.
“So once people start to focus on it, it will raise serious questions about our law.”
One of 14 chapters in Msgr Daly’s book is entitled “Seal of Confession: A Strict Obligation for Priests.”
Communications made in confidence with ministers of religion are protected as privileged under section 58 of the 2006 Evidence Act in New Zealand.
Msgr Daly argued in his book that if “the priest-penitent privilege were disallowed, this would mean that people would not confess anything that could be used against them in court”.
“If the Catholic religion is tolerated, so should its worship, which includes the sacrament of penance.”
He wrote that the penalty of automatic excommunication for directly breaking the seal of confession shows how seriously the Catholic Church takes the issue.
He also noted changes in mandatory reporting laws in some countries, connected with the issue of sexual abuse of children.
In his book, Msgr Daly called the figures for abuse by clergy “appalling”.
“The sexual abuse crisis is the biggest crisis that the Catholic Church has faced since the Reformation,” he wrote.
“Many children and victims have suffered at the hands of abusers. The damage to the Church has been enormous.”
At the launch, Msgr Daly listed some of the severe Church penalties handed down in the past for child abuse by priests, such as being sentenced to life as a galley slave.
“But in the last 40 years the canon law on sexual abuse has been, for the most part, ignored, and consequently we have got the crisis today that we have.”
Speaking at the launch, Auckland canonist Msgr David Price said canon law is not separated from reality.
Thus Msgr Daly’s book examines questions for the Church in areas like priestly obedience, incardination of clergy from overseas, parish closures and mergers, refusing sacraments to
people, intercommunion with other churches, and abortion.
by MICHAEL OTTO