North Dakota legislature drops bill threatening ‘sacred Seal of Confession’
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BISMARCK, North Dakota, February 3, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — A bill in North Dakota that would have criminalized priests unwilling to report on what they heard during confession and violate the seal of confession under certain circumstances has been withdrawn.
SB2180 sought to amend a state law regarding mandatory reporting of abuse or neglect of children or vulnerable adults. On January 29, Republican state Sen. Jerry Klein moved that the bill be withdrawn. His motion prevailed.
The bill’s intent was to force members of the clergy to report what they heard about abuse or neglect as spiritual advisors. Two passages exempting clergy from mandatory reporting would have been eliminated from the North Dakota Century Code.
One passage states, “A member of the clergy, however, is not required to report such circumstances [child abuse or neglect] if the knowledge or suspicion is derived from information received in the capacity of spiritual adviser.” The other states, “A member of the clergy, however, is not required to report the information [leading to conclusions about abuse or neglect of a vulnerable adult] if the knowledge is derived from information received in the capacity of spiritual adviser.”
Abolishing the religious exemptions could have made Catholic priests vulnerable to criminal prosecution for refusing to violate the seal of confession. Refusing to do so could have led to a 30-day prison sentence or $1,500 fine. However, under canon law, neither a priest nor anyone who overhears a sacramental confession may repeat or use what they have heard under pain of excommunication.
Some priests have died rather than break the seal, including St. John of Nepomuk (Bohemia, 1393), St. Mateo Correa Magallanes (Mexico, 1927), Fr. Felipe Císcar Puig and Fr. Fernando Olmedo Reguera (Spain, 1936).
SB2180 was introduced to the North Dakota legislature on January 11, 2021, by Sens. Judy Lee (R), Kathy Hogan (D), and Curt Kreun (D), and Reps. Mike D. Brandenburg (R) and Mary Schneider (D). It was resisted by both Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck, North Dakota, and Bishop John Folda of Fargo, North Dakota.
On January 20, Kagan wrote a letter to his diocese stating that the bill would “force every Catholic priest to violate the sacred Seal of Confession.” He reminded his flock that no priest can reveal what anyone says to him in Confession or even identify anyone who has confessed to him. Kagan stated that the bill would make the state and not the Catholic Church the “moderator of our faith and our sacramental life.”
He also said it would “impede free exercise of our religious beliefs and practices” and that it was discriminatory in that it still allowed client-attorney privilege.
On January 22, Folda wrote a similar letter, noting that such attempts to criminalize the seal were not new. “For centuries tyrants have attempted to infiltrate the sanctity of the confessional for their own ends, and this is yet another attempt to violate the sacred confidentiality of the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” he stated.
Both bishops asked their flocks to contact their state senators and ask them to vote against the bill.
State Sen. Lee, 78, requested on January 29 that SB2180 be withdrawn, “but not because I have changed my mind about the purpose of this bill, which is, and always has been, to prevent child abuse,” she said.
She believes that because a lack of understanding of its goals, the bill “has become a distraction.”
On January 27, Lee defended the bill on a local radio station, saying that she and her fellow legislators weren’t meaning to “pick on anybody” but just wanted to make sure that everything was being done to keep children from being abused.
Interviewer Scott Hennen gave the senator a spirited lecture about the realities of sacramental confession and of church safeguarding. In response, Lee said there should be a “rational conversation” about the issue, and said that the rights of a child are at least as great as those of people in a confessional. It was clear that the Senator had still not grasped what was so offensive about the bill and that she was unwilling to learn.
“I’m not Catholic. I don’t know anything about confessionals except what I know as a layperson about that,” said Lee, “so I’m not going to get into a discussion with you about what those details might be.”