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Department of Health says priests can't be jailed for holding mass during coronavirus restrictions

A TD and a religious group claimed priests could become the target of garda investigations.

THE DEPARTMENT OF Health has said that priests cannot be criminally sanctioned for holding a public mass while Covid-19 regulations are in place.

With mass limited to taking place online under Levels 3, 4 and 5 of Ireland’s coronavirus measures, the prospect of priests being fined or imprisoned for holding a service has been the focus of comment online, in the media and even in the Dáil chamber in recent weeks.

shutterstock_1771416842 Shutterstock / Derick Hudson Shutterstock / Derick Hudson / Derick Hudson

However, the Department of Health has confirmed to that there is no provision for this in the legislation that underpins the restrictions.  

Dáil debate

The topic arose during a 22 October Dáil debate on extending the length of time for which the emergency Covid-19 legislation will be in place.

Independent TD Michael McNamara said that “priests will be committing a criminal offence if they open the doors of their churches for mass”.

“Is the Government going to send gardaí after priests who decide to say mass? If the Government is thinking of that, I have one word to say, ‘Don’t’,” the Clare politician said.

In response, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said that the government is following the National Public Health Emergency Team’s (NPHET) advice on places of worship. He dismissed McNamara’s comments on penalties saying: “Religious services are non-penal in that there is no penalty attached to them.”

After Donnelly concluded his remarks, McNamara made another contribution calling for the record of the house to be corrected. He argued that because saying mass in public was not deemed a ‘reasonable excuse’ for leaving the home under the restrictions, it could result in priests getting into trouble with the law.

The debate concluded without Donnelly responding to this remark.

Iona Institute

The Health Minister’s comments drew the attention of the Iona Institute which issued a statement with the headline ‘Clergy who hold acts of public worship can go to prison under new Covid measures’.

The statement offered further dissection of Donnelly’s comments in the Dáil, claiming that, under Article 8 of the regulations, the organiser of an event that breaches the restrictions, such as a priest that holds a public mass, can face penalties including a fine, imprisonment or both.

“It seems clear, therefore, that Minister Donnelly is incorrect in his interpretation of the new law, a minister of religion can potentially go to prison for holding a public act of worship,” the Catholic advocacy group said.

Quotes from this press release were published in pieces on conservative websites in various countries. Chunks of the text also appeared in numerous Facebook posts.

Department of Health

The Department of Health and a Covid-19 legal expert have dismissed the group’s claim, clarifying that events held for religious reasons could not result in sanctions.

“There is no penalty attached to religious events because they are not included in the definition of ‘relevant event’ for the purposes of Regulation 8,” the Department of Health said.

Regulation 8 provides for restrictions on the organisation of a ‘relevant event’. A ‘relevant event’ is defined at Regulation 4 as ‘…. an event held, or to be held, for social, recreational, exercise, cultural, entertainment or community reasons…’. A relevant event does not include an event held for religious reasons.

In response to McNamara’s comments, the department explained that the list of ‘reasonable excuses’ for leaving the home is non-exhaustive.

Oran Doyle, Professor in law at the Covid-19 Law and Human Rights Observatory of Trinity College Dublin, told that the inclusion of ‘religious’ in Section 31A of the legislation and its exclusion from Regulation 4 implies that religious events are not subject to the prohibition in Regulation 8 that was cited by the Iona Institute.

However, Professor Doyle added that it was “not satisfactory” that the legislation was so unclear.

“‘Event’ is defined by Section 31A, subsection 16 of the parent statute as a gathering of persons, whether the gathering is for cultural, entertainment, recreational, sporting, commercial, work, social, community, educational, religious or other reasons,” he said.  

1528 Covid 19 Churches remain open for private prayer. A man praying in the Capuchin Friary on Church Street, Dublin. Leah Farrell Leah Farrell

The Iona Institute said it does not find the government’s clarification very reassuring.

“The Government says the list of ‘reasonable excuses’ is not exhaustive. If they think holding public worship is a reasonable excuse then they need to say so clearly,” spokesperson David Quinn said.

The government’s five-level framework for combatting Covid-19 restricts indoor gatherings because of the higher risk associated with these activities. 

Ministers of Religion are permitted to travel to perform a service on-line, to minister to the sick, and conduct a funeral or wedding ceremony at all five levels. Churches and other places of worship can also remain open for private prayer at all the levels.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin met with Catholic archbishops last week to discuss public worship during Covid-19. There was no change to the restrictions following the meeting and all the parties agreed on the importance of ongoing constructive engagement.

The Department of Health thanked the Catholic Church and other faiths for their “significant co-operation and solidarity” during the pandemic.

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