Confessions of Child Abuse to Remain Private in N.H.

By Adam Leech
Portsmouth Herald
February 23, 2006

PORTSMOUTH - The House on Wednesday effectively killed a bill that could have required priests and other religious leaders to report suspicions of child abuse even when revealed in confession.

The House voted to send the proposal to interim study, a maneuver that means the proposal cannot surface before next year.

"The publicity surrounding this bill has totally obscured the intent and key issues involved," said Concord Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, who sponsored the bill.

The bill would likely have been challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the Rev. Edward Kelley, of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Portsmouth.

"There's a fundamental dichotomy between church and state," said Kelley. "It's always been the hallmark of clergy that those things told to us under the sacrament of confession are unviolable."

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester opposed the bill - House Bill 1127 - and said all religious leaders or church personnel are required to report suspected child abuse, except information learned during confession.

"The sacrament of confession is at the heart and very core of our faith," said Diane Murphy Quinlan, chancellor and associate delegate for ministerial conduct for the bishop of Manchester. "So much so that violating that sacrament could result in ex-communication."

Confession is clearly different from all other conversation, according to Kelley, because it typically is done in a specific place and is prefaced with a formula of prayer. During confession, Catholics believe the priest is acting as the conduit to communicate sins to God and ask for forgiveness.

"It's very clearly delineated," said Kelley. "It is in no way a casual conversation. ... It's as different as apples and oranges, and everyone in the church knows it."

Gile said her purpose in bringing forward the bill had been to reconcile laws that appear to conflict when it comes to child-abuse reporting requirements by religious leaders.

Rep. Karen McRae, R-Goffstown, opposed the bill, saying it raised constitutional issues and could have religious ramifications. She said it has been studied this year as well as two years ago, and doesn't need more study.

Quinlan said substantial efforts have been made by the church since 2000 to teach Catholic school and church personnel about child abuse reporting laws, but confession is considered confidential.

"I believe the sponsors of the bill were well-intentioned - they want to do their best to protect kids," said Quinlan. "But I think the law is very clear."

Material from The Associated Press was used in this article.


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