CATHOLIC priests will defy a new law that requires them to report sexual abuse disclosed to them in the confession box -- despite the threat of 10-year jail sentences.
It came after Justice Minister Alan Shatter confirmed the mandatory reporting requirement would apply to priests hearing confession.
Fr Sean McDonagh of the Association of Catholic Priests, which represents 800 clergymen, warned last night: "I certainly wouldn't be willing to break the seal of confession for anyone -- Alan Shatter particularly."
And Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin Raymond Field said: "The seal of the confessional is inviolable as far as I am concerned, and that's the end of the matter."
It puts the clergy on a direct collision course with Mr Shatter because new laws oblige every person to report suspected sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults to gardai.
Mr Shatter said last night: "I would expect that if there was someone going to confession who was a serial sex abuser, I don't know how anyone could live with their conscience if they didn't refer that to the gardai."
His draft legislation, which is due to be introduced later this year, has already drawn a strong response from the church.
It has excommunicated priests in the past for revealing details of confessions.
The Catholic Church has always insisted it has no problem with the reporting of child physical and sexual abuse allegations to the authorities -- except when the information is given during confession.
The auxiliary bishop of Dublin was just one leading church figure who moved to stress that priests would not be co-operating with the requirement to report sexual abuse information given during confession.
The Association of Catholic Priests said the legislation was a foolish move that could not be enforced.
Its spokesman, Fr McDonagh, recalled how a New Zealand Columban priest, Francis Douglas, was tortured to death by the Japanese during World War Two because he refused to reveal information received in confession about the Filipino guerrillas.
"He is held up to us as a model of how you deal with this extraordinary sacrament. You shouldn't put into legislation something that cannot be enforced.
"It makes a mockery of the legislation," he said.
Fr McDonagh pointed out that confessions were held in private so that priests did not know who was in the confessional box.
And he questioned whether the mandatory reporting requirement would stop even one case of child sexual abuse.
It is the latest flashpoint between the Government and the Catholic Church, following the highly publicised row over Taoiseach Enda Kenny's criticism of the Vatican for failing to co-operate with clerical sexual abuse inquiries last year.
He declared that canon law would not be allowed to supersede state law. The Irish Embassy to the Vatican was subsequently closed "for budgetary reasons".
Mr Shatter said the controversy over the confessional was a "side issue" because the Murphy and Cloyne reports into clerical sex abuse had never mentioned it as the cause of the problem.
He pointed out that the main issue had been the failure of the Catholic Church authorities to act on warnings from victims -- and the movement of priests accused of abuse from parish to parish.
"As someone who doesn't frequent confession, I don't know what information people share in confessions.
"But I don't think anyone has a substantial knowledge about numbers of paedophiles sharing their exploits through the confessional and being given absolution for it," he said.
Mr Shatter pointed out that there was also no exemption for the confessional in legislation passed back in 1998 requiring mandatory reporting of offences such as murder, kidnapping and bank robberies.
He said he was not aware of any priest being prosecuted under this legislation.
Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald also added that criminal justice legislation passed last year required anyone with knowledge of white-collar crime to report it.
"And there's no exemptions in relation to the confessional," she said.
The Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference said it welcomed the fact that the State was putting the 'Children First' child protection guidelines into law -- which it had been following since 1996.
- Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor