California lawmakers threaten to break confidentiality of confession to find abusers

Religion News Service

May 31, 2019

By Jack Jenkins

Breaking with a long tradition of clerical privilege, California is edging toward requiring priests and other church employees to inform authorities if they learn of a case of child sex abuse during the sacrament of confession.

On Thursday (May 31), the California State Senate passed a bill that would require priests to report child abuse if they learn about it while hearing the confession of a fellow priest or colleague. The bill — which passed overwhelmingly with a 30-4 vote, with 4 not voting at all — was amended from its original version, which would have required a priest to report abuse they learn about in any confession they hear, not just those of their fellow clerics and coworkers.

But even the altered version of the bill is sparking outrage among Catholic leaders who see it as forcing priests and other clergy either to comply with the law and violate the sacramental seal of confession or defy authorities and risk arrest.

The California Catholic Conference decried the bill in a statement, describing it as an “attack on the sanctity of the confessional” and noting that under church law, any priest who violates the seal of confession is automatically excommunicated.

In a separate interview with Religion News Service, a spokesperson for the conference argued that the narrowing of the bill only sharpens opponents’ argument that it violates religious freedom provisions and is discriminatory.

“The more you narrow it down, the more unconstitutional it gets,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added that, while Catholic officials won’t prepare any legal challenges before the bill passes in California’s lower chamber, they wouldn’t rule out potential future lawsuits.

“I do find it quite shocking, because it is a blatant violation of the First Amendment,” San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone told Relevant Radio. “The whole point of the First Amendment, and one of the foundational principles of this country, was to keep the government out of the church. Here is… the government intruding into the church’s affairs.”

Bishop Michael Barber of the Diocese of Oakland, Calif., also forbade any priests in his region from obeying the bill, which was sponsored by State Senator Jerry Hill, if it becomes law.

“(Y)our right to confess to God and have your sins forgiven in total privacy must be protected,” Barber wrote in a letter released on Tuesday.

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