State Bills Could Strip Catholic Churches’ Right to Protect Members ‘Sealed Confessions’

The Stream/Daily Caller Foundation [Washington D.C.]

March 27, 2023

By Kate Anderson

Two bills proposed by state elected officials would remove the Catholic Church’s right to the “seal of confession” protecting priests’ right to refuse to provide private information divulged during confessionals, and Catholic advocates warn it could be a slippery slope when it comes to protections for religious freedom.

Delaware HB 74 and Vermont Sen. Bill 16 were introduced earlier this year by Democratic Rep. Eric Morrison and Democratic Sen. Richard Sears, respectively, to prevent child abuse, according to the bills’ texts. The legislation would amend state law to prohibit any clergy member from asserting the right to a privileged conversation during confessions if information about child abuse or neglect is revealed, but advocates warn it will not help prevent abuse and only deprive churches of their First Amendment rights. 

“This is not the first time this has come up,” President of Catholic Action for Faith and Family Thomas McKenna told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “But what is at stake here is the real persecution of our Catholic faith because confession is not a therapy session…discussion or therapy group, because when a person comes to confession the priest is acting in the person of Christ. This would be a persecution of the Catholic church because a priest would go to jail before they would reveal someone’s sins.”

“Catholics see this as an act between them and God …and a First Amendment right to worship God.” Father Aquinas Guilbeau, a Dominican Friar and a fellow with the Institute for Human Ecology (IHE) told the DCNF.

The Catholic tradition of confession is a process during which an individual confesses their sins to a priest and subsequently asks for pardon from God, according to Catholic doctrine. The practice is considered one of the church’s sacraments, a ritual of divine importance, such as baptism or communion and revealing the information disclosed during confession is punishable by excommunication.

The bills appear to be aimed specifically at the Catholic church, likely in light of the discovery of rampant sexual abuse of minors by priests, according to NPR. Multiple reports have been released over the past several years and Pope Francis has repeatedly condemned the abuse, as well as his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict.

Sears’ bill is currently stalled after missing a committee deadline on March 17, but he told VTDigger that “[i]t’d be dead for this year but it wouldn’t be dead for next year.” Morrison said in a Facebook post on March 21, that his bill was “in the best interests of our children” and that “all Delawareans should be mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect.”

Sears and Morrison did not respond to multiple requests by the DCNF for comment.

A Slippery Slope for Religious Freedom

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, strategy consultant and media fellow at the IHE, mother of ten, and director of the Conscience Project, an organization dedicated to defending the “rights of conscience” for religious believers, told the DCNF that these bills would not help prevent abuse.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that the seal of confession has impeded the prosecution of domestic abuse or child abuse, [and] as a mother of ten children, I am very serious when it comes to the safety of my children, so I do not want to downplay abuse …our church has had a terrible history of abuse,” Picciotti-Bayer said. “But I don’t think there is any justification for lifting the privilege and I actually am worried that it will expose vulnerable people because the confession is often the first step [for the abused] to recognize that a crime is being committed.”Please Support The Stream: Equipping Christians to Think Clearly About the Political, Economic, and Moral Issues of Our Day.

Ed Condon, a media fellow at IHE and canon lawyer, told the DCNF that while he was confident the bills would not pass, the legal ramifications of this kind of legislation sets a standard that is very vague and may create a slippery slope for religious freedom.

“That’s one of the reasons why these bills tend to fail because they are unenforceable,” Condon said. “You can’t put a cop in the confessional to make sure the priest is reporting instances of child abuse. What a Catholic priest can do, and they do, is if they learn of an instance of child abuse in the confessional is to encourage the person to make the matter known to law enforcement.”

Condon further explained that these types of laws were often an effort by elected officials who wanted “to look tough on the Catholic Church” in light of the abuse from clergy members but said it wasn’t an “effective means” of doing so.

Brian Burch, the president of CatholicVote, a Catholic advocacy nonprofit, told the DCNF that he was concerned about an attempt by a state government to “invade” the practices of Catholics.

“The goal is to harm the Catholic Church, to diminish its role in society and to undermine its efforts to serve the needs of its members in favor of a more extreme secular remake of culture,” Burch said.

Guilbeau pointed to his congregation and other Catholic churches, saying that they need a place to go where they can unburden themselves without fear of repercussions. He noted that even in situations when a priest would be told about a crime during a confessional, they always encourage the individual to tell the appropriate authorities or speak with the priest outside of the confessional so they can report it.

Guilbeau also echoed McKenna’s earlier remark that Catholic priests have proven time and time again that they would rather go to jail before violating the seal of confession.

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