Vermont bishop testifies against clergy reporting bill

Associated Press [New York NY]

March 3, 2023

By Lisa Rathke

The Roman Catholic Church’s rite of confession must remain confidential, even if someone tells a priest that a child has been abused, the bishop who leads Vermont’s diocese testified Friday.

Bishop Christopher Coyne told the state Senate Judiciary Committee that the church is opposed to a bill that would remove an exemption from Vermont’s child abuse and neglect reporting laws. Clergy are currently not required to report potential evidence of such crimes if they learn of it in confidence while acting as a spiritual advisor.

“A priest faces excommunication if he discloses the communication made to him during confession,” Coyne said. “And the sacramental seal of confession is the worldwide law of the Catholic Church, not just the diocese of Burlington, Vermont,” which covers the whole state.

The bill “crosses a Constitutional protective element of our religious faith: the right to worship as we see fit,” Coyne said.

But information clergy may receive outside the rite of confessions can and is reported, Coyne said. “The conversations that we have in our offices, the counseling sessions that we do, the spiritual direction that we do, none of that is privileged, and it is all included under the mandatory reporting statutes,” he acknowledged.

No one knows how many predators nationwide have continued to abuse children despite having confessed their behavior to religious officials. Religious organizations have invoked the privilege as a shield against civil and criminal liability after abuse becomes known.

While Coyne said protecting children is essential and criminals must be brought to justice, “disregarding fundamental religious rights is unnecessary,” and the two public priorities are not mutually exclusive.

Confession, the bishop said, “is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.” Priests can urge people who go to confession to do something, such as keep away from a child, get counseling or to go to authorities if crimes have been committed, he said.

“We don’t just say we can’t do anything about this,” he said. “And it is heartbreaking.”

Sen. Philip Baruth, a Democrat and Progressive from Burlington, said he struggles with how the bill could both maintain that sacrament and protect children.

“My own heart goes out to the child who the priest now knows is being abused but will not report that abuse,” he said.

The bill was proposed by state Sen. Richard Sears, the longtime chair of the Judiciary Committee, who has worked for years to fight child abuse. He did so after learning through an Associated Press story last year that Vermont is one of 33 states that exempt clergy in certain circumstances from laws requiring professionals such as teachers, physicians and psychotherapists to report information about alleged child sex abuse to police or child welfare officials.

Late last month, the state Senate in Washington advanced a bill to require clergy to report abuse. A similar measure has stalled in Utah, where a majority of lawmakers are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It’s not commonplace for bishops to testify. But Coyne said afterward that he was invited by a senator to participate.