Utah Bishop Responds to New State Bill That May Infringe on Seal of Confession

Catholic Vote [Madison, WI]

February 2, 2024

By McKenna Snow

A Utah bishop explained the importance of the 2,000 year-old sacrament of Confession and its boundaries as his state’s legislators consider a bill that potentially could infringe on the seal of Confession. 

The “seal of Confession” means that a priest is not permitted to reveal anything the penitent discloses in the sacrament of Confession. If the priest does reveal or disclose any actions or sins confessed, he will be excommunicated. 

Currently in Utah, “religious leaders are not allowed to report a church member’s confession to law enforcement without the consent of the person confessing… House Bill 432 “would change that,” ABC 4 reported: The bill would allow clergy to “report ongoing abuse or neglect even if the perpetrator made a confession to the clergy member…”

However, it should be noted that if clergy in Utah hear of abuse outside of a confession, they are required to report it.

On February 2 Bishop Oscar Solis of Salt Lake City wrote an article titled “Protecting Our Belief in the Seal of the Confessional” in the diocesean newspaper Intermountain Catholic. 

“I would like to call your attention to the fact that the Utah Legislature once again is proposing legislation that will impact a spiritual tradition long practiced by our Catholic Church,” Solis wrote:

This year the Utah Legislature again is considering legislation that would allow clergy members, including Catholic priests, to report to law enforcement ongoing abuse or neglect even if this information is gained during a confession.

Solis wrote, “When similar bills were proposed in 2020 and again last year, I asked all parishioners in our diocese to help defend our religious rights and oppose that bill. This year is a little different.”

“We do not oppose the proposed legislation, as initially written, but we are concerned about the possibility that the language could be changed to require that Catholic priests report such abuse even if they have learned about the abuse solely during the Sacrament of Confession,” Solis continued:

If this requirement were to become law, Catholic priests would face the untenable choice of breaking the law or being excommunicated, because breaking the Seal of Confession means automatic excommunication for a Catholic priest.

Solis emphasized that the “Sacrament of Confession has been central to the practice of our Catholic faith for 2,000 years,” and wrote that legislators should be “aware of the centrality of the Seal of the Confessional to our faith.”

“What is said in the confessional is between the penitent and God, and is private. All priests are required by Church law to maintain complete secrecy about what is heard during Confession,” Solis wrote: 

Knowing that Confession is a confidential, sacred conversation with God encourages Catholics to seek out and receive God’s mercy; this also allows them to undertake reconciliation not only with God but also with their communities and victims.

Solis emphasized that his diocese and the Catholic Church broadly “remain committed to protecting innocent children and vulnerable adults from abuse and neglect,” and added that the “motivation of various ‘abuse reporting’ bills is laudatory.”

Solis wrote that a law that puts “a priest in the position of losing his vocation or facing criminal charges seems to be a blatant violation of our First Amendment protections.”

“Priests have a sacred duty to keep in confidence any information they hear from Confession; otherwise, they will violate the trust and privacy of the penitent,” he wrote. 

“When hearing Confession, priests are not like therapists or teachers or other professionals; in the confessional the priest sits as our living conduit to our God,” Solis wrote. He also highlighted that the priests are capable within the Confessional to advise the penitent on what he or she should do after receiving the sacrament. 

“Before granting absolution,” Solis wrote, a priest hearing a confession of criminal wrongdoing may require the penitent to self-report to law enforcement, seek counseling, offer to talk with the person outside of the confessional and accompany him or her in the act of self-reporting, or require some other similar act of restorative justice through penance.

“Therefore, I respectfully ask our legislators to oppose any legislation that curtails religious liberties,” Solis wrote, adding that he “[encourages] all the Church faithful to talk to their respective representatives, give them a call, send a letter or email and make them aware of the centrality of the Seal of the Confessional to our faith.”

Solis included the various steps that his diocese has taken to promote transparency and to address abuse cases, and “[encouraged] anyone who has been a victim of abuse or exploitation by clergy, religious or lay Church personnel to make such a report.”

“The Catholic Church believes that sexual misconduct of any kind by Church personnel is an affront to human dignity of the person and the mission of the Church,” Solis wrote, adding that the “spiritual well-being of all victims, their families and others in the community is always of particular concern to the Church.”

Solis wrote that his diocese “takes allegations of sexual misconduct involving minors and vulnerable persons seriously. Any allegation received is immediately reported to law enforcement agencies and sent to the diocese’s Protection of Children and Young People Independent Review Board for further necessary actions.”

“We continue to pray for the victims and their families and ask their forgiveness for our failure to protect them,” the bishop concluded:

We remain committed in addressing clergy abuse allegations within the diocese with the hope of eliminating this scourge that has hurt so many children, to remove from ministry those who committed the crime, and to help those victims betrayed by men they believed they could trust in their healing process.