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.


  1. perhaps the time is at hand when all roman catholics live in one place and therefore can keep secrets and cover up child rape and money laundering and all the other crimes they commit in the name of god..?
    that way our courts and social service systems and tax payers money will be used for the general public?

    • I didn’t see anything in this article that suggested covering up abuse was a good thing. I think sometimes it helps to remember that plenty of ‘general public’ commit similar crimes and use up resources – think of Rolf Harris, dodgy doctors, teachers, coaches the list goes on. Just because you become a priest doesn’t mean you never do anything wrong again – in fact I am sure the devil is rubbing his hands with delight about the whole thing, and the suffering of the victims must be indescribable. I don’t think however that turning away from God is the answer to these problems, he has given us all free will, the ability to know and choose right or wrong. It hurts Him so much when people trusted in His name abuse that trust and damage such innocent young people. So the only one that wins out of the whole thing is the devil, not only does he potentially gain the soul of a priest, he also is happy about the hurt of the victim and the pain in causes God. Let’s not let him keep on winning! What kind of a world then? Let’s stay close to God, and trust that he will do the judging.

    • There was an interesting segment on the ABC’s Law Report (19 April 2010) where Damian Carrick interviewed a retiring judge Antoinette Kennedy. The report is pretty lengthy but following is an extract.

      Damien Carrick: Antoinette Kennedy recently stepped down as the chief judge of the WA District Court. She was the state’s longest serving judge, and she’s also a trailblazer: Antoinette Kennedy was WA’s first female judge.……………[speaking about how the media selectively reports]……………..
      Antoinette Kennedy: Oh, in Western Australia paedophiles go to jail for very, very long periods of time. No-one should be under any illusion about that. But most of it is not reported, and it’s not reported for the simple reason most of it is in the family, and therefore the media can’t name and shame the offender.
      Damien Carrick: Because they would identify the survivor or the victim ?
      Antoinette Kennedy: That’s right. And so the community is unaware of the real paedophilia problem in the community, which is one of the greatest failings of the media of all time. I’m not asking them to publish every one of those, because I know that would be very boring if they said, ‘Today a stepfather, today a father, today whatever, was sentenced to 6, 10, 12 years jail.’ But it would be nice if they pointed out that 95% of paedophiles are heterosexual, adult males, who are not priests or schoolteachers……………..

  2. Another important thing the media doesn’t mention in articles on the cases of child abuse in the Church is the beliefs and practices of the Priests. In many of the cases these were not orthodox Priests who fully adhered to the Church’s teachings etc. Many of these Paedophile Priests were disident Priests who were often Heretics who disagreed with many of the Church’s Teachings like on Homosexuality etc. So you can hardly say that Paedophilia is a fruit of the Church, firstly because %-wise the numbers were not big compared to the vast numbers of Priests, but also because who were offenders, many did not believe many Catholic Teachings etc.

  3. Surely a Priest hearing a confession directed to God should be given at least the same or equal right as a legal advisor on behalf of his client, or the person himself who under section 60 of the evidence act 2006 may as a defendant refuse to give evidence which is self-incriminating. Has our society in NZ now got to the moment of hating Catholicism to the point of persecution, there is no doubt that this will happen, it’s just a matter of when.