‘Anti-Catholic bigotry’ or protecting children? Delaware bill would require priests report abuse or neglect from confession

WHYY [Philadelphia PA and Wilmington DE]

March 13, 2023

By Chris Barrish

One sponsor says current law turns “a sacred space into an unsafe space.” A lawyer who opposes the bill calls it “anti-Catholic bigotry.”

The Roman Catholic Church has always considered the confidentiality of the confessional as sacrosanct.

In plain talk, that means whatever the confessor tells the priest must remain between them.

“The teaching of the church over these centuries has been that this is a moment in which that person is confessing that to God and is being absolved, is being forgiven  through the priest, for those sins,” says Bishop William Koenig of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington.

Delaware lawmakers even enshrined that privacy mandate in a law that requires everyone else except attorneys and priests to report suspected or alleged child abuse or neglect, no matter how repulsive. The law also exempts priests from having to testify in court about child abuse or neglect.

Several state lawmakers, including Catholic Sen. Nicole Poore, want to remove that shield.

They introduced a bill that would require priests to report details of child abuse or neglect that they hear in the confessional to law enforcement or state child protection officials, or face the prospect of a heavy fine.

“We should protect sacred places,’’ Poore told WHYY News, “but not if it turns a sacred place into an unsafe place.”

Poore suggested that such exemptions likely protected priests in Delaware and 32 other states from prosecution of their own child sex offenses over the years. Facing possible bankruptcy in 2011, the Wilmington diocese itself paid $77 million to settle a lawsuit in 2011 brought by 150 alleged sex abuse victims of priests.

“There were a lot of priests that were absolved from the sins that they created and it was not reportable,’’ Sen. Poore said. “And that’s why the state and other states found themselves in a very tenuous situation.”

The bill’s chief sponsor, non-Catholic state Rep. Eric Morrison, said the attorney-client privilege should be the only exemption to Delaware’s mandatory reporting law.

“I believe that this should also apply to priests,’’ Morrison said. “It’s really about protecting our children.”

The reporting law had been strengthened in 2010 to specify that all people must report child abuse, and singled out health care professionals at hospitals, nursing homes, and the Medical Society of Delaware, as well as social workers, educators, police, and prosecutors.

Employees at several institutions had failed to report years of suspicions about Sussex County pediatrician Earl Bradley, who was ultimately convicted in 2011 of raping and sexually abusing more than 100 young patients, and recording many of the brutal attacks.

That updated law did not, however, remove the exemption for confidences “between attorney and client and that between priest and penitent in a sacramental confession.”

Violations of Delaware’s mandatory reporting law face a fine of up to $10,000 for the first offense, and up to $50,000 for subsequent offenses.

Gov. John Carney, a practicing Catholic who attended Holy Rosary Elementary School in  Claymont and St. Mark’s High School near Newark, would not comment on the legislation this week.

Attorney General Kathy Jennings, the state’s top law enforcement official, supports the bill.

“When people know child abuse is occurring,’’ Jennings said, “they should report it — period.”

Elsewhere in the region, Pennsylvania has a confessional exception in its reporting law but New Jersey does not.

‘What’s the best way of going forward and protecting our faith?’

The Wilmington diocese, which represents about a quarter-million Catholics in the state of Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, vigorously opposes the legislation.

“No Catholic priest or bishop would ever break the seal of confession under any circumstances,’’ the diocese said in a written statement posted on its website. “To do so would incur an automatic excommunication that could only be pardoned by the Pope himself. It would be a clear violation of the First Amendment for the government to interfere in this most sacred and ancient practice of our faith.”

The diocese pointed out that priests are considered mandatory reporters in state law and its own rules, except when they learn about child abuse or neglect in the confessional.

In addition, Koenig said the overwhelming majority of confessions are done anonymously in a booth, with the priest and penitent separated by mesh-covered screens or other barriers that obscure their faces. That makes such reports to authorities “nearly impossible to meet in a practical sense,’’ the diocese statement said.

Bishop Koenig elaborated on that statement in an interview, saying confession is one of the church’s seven sacraments, including baptism and matrimony. He stressed that over the course of human history, priests have chosen execution over disclosure to protect penitents.

Koenig contends the church’s policy is also protected by the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and prohibition of laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”