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California bill forces priests to violate the seal of confession

Martin M. Barillas Martin M. Barillas Follow Martin

SACRAMENTO, California, May 16, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — The California legislature is considering this week a bill that would require Catholic priests to disclose penitents’ confessions if they learn of child abuse.

Democrat state Sen. Jerry Hill introduced the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (SB 360), which demands priests and other clergy file a report should they learn of child abuse in confession or counseling. Failure to disclose what they heard in the confessional, according to the bill, can mean six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both.

Hill said upon introducing the bill that he wants to preserve "the safety and protection of children. Individuals who harm children or are suspected of harming children must be reported so a timely investigation of law enforcement can occur. The law should apply equally to all professionals ... with no exceptions period. The exemption for clergy only protects the abuser and places children at further risk."

He also claimed that “the clergy-penitent privilege has been abused on a large scale, resulting in the unreported and systemic abuse of thousands of children across multiple denominations and faiths.”

So far, Hill has not offered evidence to support the latter charge.

Critics fear that all conscience rights are jeopardized by the bill as well as the free exercise of religion. American law and custom has long honored the priest-penitent privilege, having recognized antecedents that extend to the 10th century A.D. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Trammel v. United States (1980): “The priest-penitent privilege recognizes the human need to disclose to a spiritual counselor, in total and absolute confidence, what are believed to be flawed acts or thoughts and to receive priestly consolation and guidance in return.”

In an op-ed, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles warned against the legislation, writing. “Confession is sacred — to every priest and every Catholic. That is why I am greatly disturbed by a bill that is moving through the California legislature. Senate Bill 360 would order priests to disclose information they might hear in confession concerning the sexual abuse of minors. Sometimes the best intentions can lead to bad legislation.”

The “seal of confession” is sacrosanct in the Catholic Church because it underlies the unbreakable guarantee given to penitents to freely confess and seek reconciliation with God. Any priest who breaks the seal incurs automatic excommunication, according to canon law, and may be reconciled only through the Pope himself. At least four priests in history have suffered martyrdom rather than break the seal.

The California Catholic Conference has warned that SB 360 is an assault on the constitutional guarantees for the free exercise of religion. Moreover, the Conference argued that it would do nothing to protect children because if the promise of confidentiality no longer exists in confession, penitents will be much less likely to approach a priest for confession.  

The Pacific Justice Institute-Center for Public Policy (PJI-CPP), a law firm that has defended homeschoolers and evangelical Christian churches, also criticized the bill. In a letter to the state legislature, PJI Chief Counsel Kevin Snider noted that the bill makes not only Catholic priests mandated reporters but Protestant and Mormon ministers who also recognize the confidentiality of penitents. The bill, he said, does not address foster children who are under the state’s supervision and most at risk of sexual abuse.

Archbishop Gomez asserted that child abuse is seldom confessed to priests.

“Those who counsel such predators,” he wrote, “tell us that sadly, many of them are secretive and manipulative and cannot comprehend the grave evil of their actions.”

Journalists and lawyers, he wrote, are more likely to hear admissions of child sex crimes. He noted that the bill does not propose doing away with the attorney-client privilege or the protection of journalists’ sources, but “it only targets Catholic priests.”

Fr. Pius Pietrzyk, a professor at St. Patrick Seminary in California who holds degrees in civil and canon law, is strongly opposed to the bill, noting that American courts “have almost universally upheld a ‘priest-penitent’ privilege, akin to the attorney-client privilege.”

In an op-ed, he wrote, “Although not directly taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court, the privilege is also rooted in the constitutional imperative not to prohibit the free exercise of religion.”

According to Fr. Pietrzyk, the bill incorrectly conflates the mandatory reporting requirements already on the books applying to state-licensed employees (e.g. attorneys, physicians, social workers, etc.) with those of priests, who are not state-licensed.

“Unless Senator Hill is contending that priests must be licensed by their state, essentially he’s turning priests into agents of the state, which is precisely what the First Amendment is meant to avoid,” wrote Pietrzyk. “It’s hard to argue that this bill is anything but a direct assault on the First Amendment.”

Fr. Pietrzyk wrote that Hill and the other authors of SB 360 apparently do not understand that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not like other forms of communication that have been labeled “penitential communications.” He wrote that, according to Catholic teachings, only confession has absolute inviolability.

He fears that while the bill focuses on sexual abuse, it may be creating a slippery slope whereby fundamental conscience rights are endangered and in which the state may demand that priests disclose other sins that also happen to be illegal.

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