Irish priests 'may not be covered' by abuse code rules

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Irish ministers have warned that it may be extremely difficult to include voluntary and church bodies in planned rules on mandatory reporting of child sex abuse, despite alarm over the recent spate of revelations involving Catholic clergy.

Austin Currie, junior health minister responsible for childcare, said creating regulations to legally compel clergy to report such cases to gardai "would have to be very carefully considered".

The issues raised were complex, he warned, and requiring a priest to divulge information obtained during confession would need to be carefully examined. The present law made no distinction between clergy and others, he stressed.

"If you have information about a crime, you should inform the gardai. This is not something which necessarily needs to be laid down in procedures or regulations," he said.

A government spokesman told the Independent that planned mandatory reporting rules were to apply to teachers and social workers, adding to regulations in force since April.

Opposition parties argued mandatory reporting should apply to all those in childcare in voluntary bodies, recognising the clergy's still considerable, if diminished, control of parts of the education and health sectors, among other non-state organisations.

In the Dail, Liz O'Donnell, justice spokeswoman for the Progressive Democrats, asked how senior clergy could justify ending cases with cash payments that left the abusers at large in what were "first and foremost criminal matters".

"What other category of paedophile could buy his way out of the criminal process, with the knowledge of the church authority?" she asked.

Her party leader, Mary Harney insisted: "Those in authority, in a supervisory or pastoral role, (have) an obligation to report serious child abuse."

The justice minister, Nora Owen, this week confirmed gardai had briefed senior clergy and priests on how they investigate sex abuse allegations.

In one of the most serious cases, the alleged attacks on a north Dublin altar boy by Father Patrick Hughes, the Director of Public Prosecutions decided against a prosecution. The priest paid IRpounds 50,000 to settle civil claims.

On Wednesday another Catholic priest appeared in court in Enniskillen, the sixth Irish cleric to appear in a sex abuse case in two weeks. John McCabe, 43, faced 12 charges of indecently assaulting aschoolboy between 1979 and 1985. McCabe was remanded on bail to appear before Omagh Crown Court in November.