SPOKANE, Washington (LifeSiteNews) — While two state legislatures debate bills that would attempt to force priests to break the secrecy of the confessional for cases of child abuse, a Catholic bishop affirmed that priests and bishops would rather suffer imprisonment than comply with such a law.
The state legislatures of Washington and Vermont are discussing bills on mandatory reporting of sexual abuse involving children. The bills would remove the clergy-penitent privilege, by which civil law acknowledges the absolute secrecy of the Catholic sacrament of confession. Bishop Thomas Daly of the Diocese of Spokane, Washington, told the Washington Examiner in an interview this week that if the bill proposed in the state House, HB 1098, were enacted, the Catholic clergy would refuse to comply.
“Priests and bishops will go to jail rather than break the seal of confession,” the bishop declared. “I’m confident that the priests in [the Diocese of Spokane] and my brother bishops would do that, so sacred is that bond.”
Daly affirmed that the seal of confession is non-negotiable for a priest, drawing attention to the fact that most secular institutions recognize the importance of the confessional seal and respect it as something inviolable.
“I am troubled if someone seems to think that this is negotiable,” he told the Examiner. “I worry that that bond of trust that people have given their life for would suddenly seem to be up for renegotiation.”
The bishop also questioned the motivation and rationale behind the bill, given that priests are already obliged to report child abuse outside of what they hear in the confessional. “Priests are already mandated reporters in all matters but the sacrament of penance,” the bishop pointed out. “Why has this become an issue?”
Daly also noted recent criticisms voiced by secular groups against the work of the Catholic Church in social and healthcare services.
In public comments on the proposed bill in Washington state, Eric Kniffin, a fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., criticized the bill as an “attack on religious exercise” that was “unwarranted, unprecedented, and unconstitutional.”
Kniffin wrote, “If Substitute House Bill 1098 (SHB 1098) was enacted, it would make Washington State’s mandatory reporter law the most radical in the country. By explicitly overruling the clergy penitent privilege, while leaving the attorney client privilege untouched, Washington State would go where no state has gone before, setting the State up for a civil rights lawsuit I am confident it would lose.”
In a robust 30-page memorandum on the bill addressed to the Washington legislature, Kniffin detailed the nature of the sacrament of confession for Catholics, the penalty of an automatic excommunication for a Catholic priest for a violation of the “confessional seal” of absolute secrecy, the examples of priests who have suffered martyrdom for refusing to break the seal, and the unconstitutionality of the proposed bill.
In the memorandum, Kniffin focused on five major points:
- The Catholic Church in the United States and in Washington state is committed to preventing and reporting child abuse;
- The absolute confidentiality of what is said in the confessional is a longstanding and fundamental part of a Catholic sacrament;
- The clergy penitent privilege is not “loophole” — it is a venerable part of our legal system, and there is no evidence that the seal of the confessional has contributed to the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church;
- No existing mandatory reporting law directly attacks the Catholic Church’s sacraments as would SHB 1098; and
- A mandatory reporting law that eliminates the clergy penitent privilege would likely be found unconstitutional.
Highlighting the heroic martyrdom of several Catholic priests who refused to reveal what they had heard in a confession, Kniffin wrote,
“Many Catholic priests have indeed given their lives instead of revealing the contents of the confessions they have heard. The Catholic Church celebrates these priests as heroes of the faith, as saints and martyrs. Their stories are important for several reasons. First, these stories offer comfort to individual Catholics, who know that they can be brutally honest in confession because priests would never divulge what is said in the confessional, no matter what. Second, these stories inspire and emboldened priests to follow their example. Finally, this proud tradition is a heads up to State of Washington that curtailing the priest-penitent privilege would not succeed in forcing priests to break their religious vows. It would merely succeed in turning priests into martyrs.”
Kniffin cited the examples of St. John Nepomucene, a late-14th-century priest and confessor to Queen Johanna of Bohemia, in the modern-day Czech Republic, who was thrown off a bridge for refusing to break the confessional seal. Similarly, St. Mateo Correa Magallanes, a priest in Mexico during the Cristero War, as well as Blesseds Felipe Císcar Puig and Fernando Olmedo Reguera, priests during the Spanish Civil War, refused to reveal anything heard in confession at the cost of their lives.
When threatened with being shot, St. Magallanes told a military general, “You may do so, but you ignore the fact, General, that a priest must keep the secret of confession. I am ready to die.” And in like manner Blessed Puig told his prison guards, “Do what you want, but I will not reveal the confession. I would die before that.”
Kniffin used the examples of these martyrs to confirm that “deeply engrained in each Catholic priest is the conviction that he should rather face torture and death than betray the seal of the confessional.”
In 2019, the California legislature tried to enact a law similar to that under debate in Washington that would have required priests to violate the secrecy of the confessional for cases of child abuse, but the attempt failed.
In an interview with the Examiner on the issue, Kniffin said, “It’s also really important to note that there have been at least 12 grand jury or attorney general reports, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages documenting so many cases, and not one of them points to the confession as a contributing factor, not one of them has recommended getting rid of this privilege.”
Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, denounced a similar bill before the Vermont legislature this week, declaring, “A priest faces excommunication if he discloses the communication made to him during confession. And the sacramental seal of confession is the worldwide law of the Catholic Church, not just the diocese of Burlington, Vermont.”