Clergy reporting bill fails to make key legislative deadline over constitutional concerns

VTDigger [Montpelier VT]

March 17, 2023

By Alan J. Keays

A bill that would end clergy exemptions for reporting child abuse and neglect appears dead as it failed to meet a key legislative deadline for passing out of a committee Friday.

The bill, S.16, had been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held hearings on the matter, including one that featured Vermont Catholic Bishop Christopher Coyne, who testified in opposition to the legislation.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the committee’s chair, said Thursday that due to “constitutional concerns” the bill was being shelved, at least for now, and therefore will not move out of committee.

“I’m going to be working with legislative counsel and others trying to work something out so when we take it back to make sure it is constitutional under the United States Constitution and the separation of church and state,” Sears said.

He added that he will be looking at what laws other states have on the books or are looking to adopt.

“It’d be dead for this year but it wouldn’t be dead for next year,” he said of the legislation. “I want to make sure whatever we do is constitutionally protected.” 

Friday was the deadline for policy bills to move out of their committee of origin. If a bill is not passed out of that committee it is likely shelved for a year. If a bill is shelved during the first year of the biennium, as is the case with S.16, it can resume the legislative process the following January. 

Vermont law says clergy members are obligated to report abuse and neglect, but the law includes exemptions for what they learn while hearing a confession or acting as a spiritual adviser.

According to current law, the exemptions include information obtained in a communication that is:

  • Made to a member of the clergy acting in the capacity of a spiritual adviser.
  • Intended by the parties to be confidential at the time of the communication.
  • Intended to be an act of contrition or matter of conscience.
  • Required to be confidential by religious law, doctrine or tenet.

The bill would have done away with those exemptions.

Benjamin Novogroski, legislative counsel, told committee members earlier this year that Vermont is one of 33 states with exemptions for clergy in laws requiring mandatory reporting of child abuse.

Earlier this month, Coyne testified against the legislation, stating that a priest faces excommunication for disclosing the communication made to them during confession.

“And the sacramental seal of confession is the worldwide law of the Catholic Church, not just the diocese of Burlington, Vermont,” Coyne said, according to the Associated Press. He added that the bill “crosses a Constitutional protective element of our religious faith: the right to worship as we see fit.”