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California bill forcing priests to violate the seal of confession withdrawn

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SACRAMENTO, California, July 9, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – In a surprise move, a proposed California law which would have forced Catholic priests to violate the seal of confession was tabled yesterday after the bill’s author realized the measure lacked sufficient support to pass.  

The Angelus, a publication of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, attributed the shelving of Senate Bill 360 to “a remarkable grassroots campaign mounted by the state’s Catholics, members of other faith groups, and religious liberty advocates from across the country.”     

“The action follows the delivery of tens of thousands of letters, emails and phone calls from Catholics and others concerned with the free expression of religion,” declared a statement issued by the California Catholic Conference. “Hundreds more planned on boarding buses from as far away as Los Angeles to voice their opposition tomorrow.”

“SB 360 was a dangerous piece of legislation,” said LA Archbishop José Gomez, reacting to the news in a statement. “It was a threat to the sacrament of confession that would have denied the right to confidential confessions to priests and tens of thousands of Catholics who work with priests in parishes and other Church agencies and ministries.”

Gomez said that the bill “was more than that – it threatened the conscience of every American. If any legislature can force believers to reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings shared with God in confession, then truly there is no area of human life that is free or safe from government intrusion.”

“This outcome is good for the Catholic people of California and for believers of all faiths, not only in this state but across the country,” said Gomez.

“An amazing number of people spoke to their legislators to explain the sacred nature of the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” said Andrew Rivas, executive director of the California Catholic Conference. “It is important to our spirituality and our relation to God and to others. Our thanks go to all who played a part.”

A just-released analysis of the now-defunct bill by the staff of the Public Safety Committee noted it had received opposition from more than 125,000 individuals, with more still being delivered, according to the California Catholic Conference.   

In May, Democrat state Sen. Jerry Hill introduced the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (SB 360), which would have mandated that priests file a report if they learn of child abuse in confession or counseling. Priests who failed to report what they heard under the seal of confession would have faced six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both.

The Democrat legislator said the goal of the bill was 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.”

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

The bill would have placed Catholic priests in an untenable situation: A choice between imprisonment or excommunication. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states unequivocally, “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore, it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason” (CCC 2490). According to canon law, any priest who breaks the seal incurs automatic excommunication.

Catholic priests also have the right to hear Confessions anonymously behind a screen, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts affirmed in 1998.

“I will go to jail before I will obey this attack on our religious freedom,” wrote Bishop Michael Barber to his Oakland, California Diocese while Bill 360 was still under consideration. “Even if this bill passes, no priest may obey it. The protection of your right to confess to God and have your sins forgiven in total privacy must be protected.”

By late last month, concern regarding the bill had reached all the way to Rome, eliciting comment from Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, with Pope Francis’ approval: “Every political or legislative initiative intended to ‘force’ the inviolability of the sacramental seal would constitute an unacceptable offense against the libertas Ecclesiae (freedom of the Church), which does not receive its legitimacy from individual states, but from God.” 

RELATED:

Law passes in Australia requiring priests to break seal of confession, bishop protests

Australian priests say they’ll risk jail to protect seal of confession from new law

Costa Rica wants to force Catholic priests into violating seal of confession

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