From Patsy McGarry’s “Church ‘lied without lying’” (Irish Times: 26 November 2009):
One of the most fascinating discoveries in the Dublin Archdiocese report was that of the concept of “mental reservation” which allows clerics mislead people without believing they are lying.
According to the Commission of Investigation report, “mental reservation is a concept developed and much discussed over the centuries, which permits a church man knowingly to convey a misleading impression to another person without being guilty of lying”.
It gives an example. “John calls to the parish priest to make a complaint about the behaviour of one of his curates. The parish priest sees him coming but does not want to see him because he considers John to be a troublemaker. He sends another of his curates to answer the door. John asks the curate if the parish priest is in. The curate replies that he is not.”
The commission added: “This is clearly untrue but in the Church’s view it is not a lie because, when the curate told John that the parish priest was not in, he mentally reserved the words ‘…to you’.”
Cardinal Desmond Connell had explained the concept to the commission as follows:
“Well, the general teaching about mental reservation is that you are not permitted to tell a lie. On the other hand, you may be put in a position where you have to answer, and there may be circumstances in which you can use an ambiguous expression realising that the person who you are talking to will accept an untrue version of whatever it may be – permitting that to happen, not willing that it happened, that would be lying. It really is a matter of trying to deal with extraordinarily difficult matters that may arise in social relations where people may ask questions that you simply cannot answer. Everybody knows that this kind of thing is liable to happen. So mental reservation is, in a sense, a way of answering without lying.”
In Mr Madden’s case, emphasised he did not lie to the media about the use of diocesan funds for the compensation of clerical child sexual abuse victims.
[Cardinal Connell] explained to [Andrew] Madden [a sexual abuse victim, that] he had told journalists “that diocesan funds ARE (report’s emphasis) not used for such a purpose; that he had not said that diocesan funds WERE not used for such a purpose. By using the present tense he had not excluded the possibility that diocesan funds had been used for such purpose in the past. According to Mr Madden, Cardinal Connell considered that there was an enormous difference between the two.”