NEW YORK (NY)
July 1, 2019
By Ellen K. Boegel
The Catholic Church is campaigning against California’s proposed changes to its mandatory child abuse reporting law that could compromise the ancient Catholic defense of the “seal of the confessional.” Currently, clergy members are mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect, but need not report abuse if their reasonable suspicions are based on “penitential communications.” Several bills have been proposed that would eliminate or limit this reporting exception.
The version of SB 360 passed by the California Senate and scheduled for a July 9 hearing before the Assembly’s Public Safety committee narrows the definition of penitential communications to those similar to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in that they must be “made in the manner and context that places the clergy member specifically and strictly under a level of confidentiality that is considered inviolate by church doctrine.” The bill, if enacted, would also require reporting of child abuse revealed through “penitential communications between a clergy member and another person that is employed at the same site or facility as the clergy member” and “between a clergy member and another clergy member.”
This change is significant, but SB 360 does not apply to most confessions and, as currently written, would not change California’s Evidence Code, which retains the priest-penitent privilege and grants everyone the right “to prevent another from disclosing a penitential communication.” The laws of other states are more severe and less religiously accommodating, although practical considerations have limited their impact on religious adherents.
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