CARDINAL Sean Brady has voiced vehement opposition to government plans to criminalise priests who do not report sex abuse admitted in the confessional.
Speaking for the first time on the issue yesterday, the Catholic Primate embarked on a collision course with Taoiseach Enda Kenny when he insisted that any intrusion on the sacraments was "a challenge to the very basis of a free society".
Under the legislation, currently being drawn up, a priest would be guilty of a criminal offence if they were told of a sexual abuse case and failed to report it to the civil authorities.
This has been viewed as a direct assault on the Vatican's canon law, which stipulates: "The sacramental seal is inviolable; thus it is absolutely illegitimate for the confessor to make the penitent known, even only in part, using words or any other means, and for any reason."
On Sunday Cardinal Brady added his voice to senior Vatican figures who have rejected the Government's proposed law.
He described confession as "a sacred and precious rite" and he insisted than any intrusion on the sacrament was "a challenge to the very basis of a free society".
In an address to several thousand pilgrims at Knock Shrine, Co Mayo, the cardinal said freedom to participate in worship and to enjoy the long-established rites of the church were fundamental rights.
Without referring directly to Mr Kenny's proposal, he said: "For example, the inviolability of the seal of confession is so fundamental to the very nature of the sacrament that any proposal which undermines that inviolability is a challenge to the rights of every Catholic to freedom of religion and conscience."
Last night, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice said minister Alan Shatter "reiterates his statement" that the Criminal Justice (Withholding Information on Crimes against Children and Vulnerable Adults) Bill will apply regardless of any internal rules of any religious grouping.
"The central focus and concern of the Government is child protection and to ensure that allegations of child abuse are reported to An Garda Siochana, fully investigated and, where appropriate, criminal prosecutions take place," she said.
The cardinal made his comments during a homily at 3pm mass in Knock Basilica to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
In his homily, Cardinal Brady also delivered a strong condemnation of any nations which permit abortion or euthanasia, saying they were "the poorest".
He also commended all charitable Catholic organisations in Ireland, such as the Order of Malta, for the effort they made to bring more young people into their ranks.
An audience of more than 3,000 were in the basilica, including members of Mother Teresa's order, the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, and members of the Order of Malta from around the country.
It was vital, the cardinal said, that parish priests and parish councils provide opportunities for young people to show leadership in their communities.