Catholic priests in California would be legally obligated to report to police sexual abuse confessions brought to them by fellow priests and other church employees if a bill quickly moving through the state legislature becomes law.
Religious liberty advocates, including representatives of Catholic dioceses in California, challenge the legislation, saying it would invade a sacred space and direct priests to violate the “seal of confession.”
“Sometimes the best intentions can lead to bad legislation,” Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez said in a statement on California’s Senate Bill 360, which was approved by wide margins last week and now heads to the state Assembly.
Under Roman Catholic teachings, the sins confessed by a parishioner to a priest in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation are secret to all but God, who absolves the sins through the instrument of the priest.
Current California law respects the “seal of confession,” requiring any member of the clergy (rabbis, priests or ministers) to report suspected sexual abuse of minors to authorities, except for suspicions raised via “penitential communication.”
The bill proposed by state Sen. Jerry Hill, San Francisco Democrat, would narrow that exemption for church employees, including priests, who admit to or suggest sexual abuse sins during confession.
“Instead of protecting children, some have been shielding abusers,” Mr. Hill said before last week’s vote.
The legislation comes amid the Catholic church’s sexual misconduct scandal, in which hundreds of priests have been accused of sexually abusing parishioners — particularly children — over several decades as church leaders moved them from parish to parish without alerting authorities. Several dioceses across the country have released the names of priests who had been credibly accused of such abuse.
Staff for Mr. Hill claim the legislation merely adopts rules shared by other states, but Steve Pehanich, director of communications and advocacy for the California Catholic Conference, disputes this.
“We’ve reached out to other states, and everybody has told us their exemptions remain,” Mr. Pehanich told The Washington Times.
Mr. Hill cited Nebraska as having a law similar to his proposal, but a spokesman for the Diocese of Omaha said the state’s mandatory reporter law exempts penitential confessions.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, seven states require priests to break the confessional seal under laws enacted in the 1970s and ’80s, but California’s would be the first legislation enacted since 1999, just before the onset of the national sex abuse scandal.
Church leaders in California suggest that lawmakers are targeting priests and say there is zero evidence that systemic secrecy aided by the confessional is to blame for childhood victimization.
“I find it quite shocking because it’s a blatant violation of the First Amendment,” San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone told Relevant Radio hours before a state Senate hearing in March. “This is unfortunately misperception about what the situation is in the church right now.”
In March, Pope Francis required priests and nuns to report to church authorities any clergy sex abuse and cover-ups by their superiors. This directive came on the heels of a February summit at the Vatican, where bishops worked on developing a framework for the church to adopt to prevent abuse and deal victims’ claims.
But church officials have decried the amended California legislation, saying there is no evidence abusers are revealing these sins in the confessional. (The original bill called for priests to break the seal of confession for all penitent conversations, not just those of fellow clergy or church employees.)
“We’re creating an alleged solution for a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Archbishop Cordileone.
Victims organizations, including SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and Crime Victims United California, issued support for the legislation when it was introduced in February.
“We have seen too many situations where church officials have held back information about alleged abusers, only for those abusers to escape justice due to statute of limitations reasons,” SNAP Executive Director Zach Hiner said in an email.
Concerns are rampant among Catholic advocacy groups in California. In a statement against the bill, Archbishop Gomez relayed the story of Saint Mateo Correa Magallanes, who was executed by the Mexican government in 1927 for refusing to disclose intelligence received during confessions he performed on fellow inmates while jailed.
“Every priest takes his obligations as a confessor seriously,” Archbishop Gomez said.
Under the proposed legislation, “mandatory reporters” would have 36 hours to report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect to county authorities. Current state law recognizes 46 different mandatory reporters, including teachers, doctors and social workers. The penalty for failing to uphold the law is a misdemeanor.
The bill doesn’t specifically mention Catholic priests, but it is widely seen as a response to the sex abuse scandal. In March, the West Virginia attorney general sued the Catholic Church for knowingly hiring pedophile priests. A 2017 report from Australia’s Royal Commission, appointed to investigate child sexual abuse in that country, recommended removing the exemption for confession.
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