Bill to require California priests to report confessions of child sex abuse on hold

By John Woolfolk
Mercury News
July 9, 2019

Senator Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, in Palo Alto on Monday, Nov. 6, 2017.
Photo by Josie Lepe

The author of a California bill strongly opposed by the Roman Catholic Church that would require priests to report confessions of child sex abuse by fellow clergy or church employees to authorities said Tuesday he has put it on hold, citing lack of support.

SB 360 by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, had passed out of the state Senate on a 30-4-4 vote May 23. But Hill’s office said the senator pulled it from a scheduled Tuesday Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing after he “became aware that the legislation would not have enough support to move on.” Given legislative deadlines, reviving it in the current year would be difficult.

“This issue remains important to me, and I will continue to champion it in the hope that my colleagues can come together on legislation,” Hill said in a statement Tuesday. “I strongly believe that for any institution self-policing and self-investigation are not effective ways to combat alleged abuse, as our own state Legislature has found. To be clear, I have placed SB 360 on hold. The bill is on pause, it has not been withdrawn.”

The Roman Catholic Church, struggling to restore parishioners’ confidence amid accusations that some high-ranking clergy had helped cover up reports of abuse by priests, opposed the bill as an assault on the sacrament of Reconciliation, commonly known as confession. Priests have told parishioners at Sunday Mass that the bill was a threat to their core beliefs.

“An amazing number of people spoke to their legislators to explain the sacred nature of the sacrament of Reconciliation,” said Andrew Rivas, executive director of the California Catholic Conference. “It is important to our spirituality and our relation to God and to others. Our thanks go to all who played a part.”

Rivas also emphasized that strengthening mandatory reporting laws continues to be a priority of the Catholic Conference’s public policy efforts.

California, like other states, requires people in dozens of professions — teachers, coaches, doctors and clergy among them — to report suspected child abuse to authorities, even if revealed to them in confidence. But California and most other states currently exempt clergy from reporting such abuse if it is learned through an act of penance in which a confessor seeks reconciliation with God.

An analysis of the bill for the Assembly Public Safety Committee said “only six states deny the clergy-penitent privilege in cases of child abuse or neglect,” including Texas. But it also noted that “requiring a clergy member to violate the confidentiality of the confessional raises constitutional issues” regarding First Amendment protection of religious freedom.

The California Catholic Conference said the ‘seal of confession’ is one of the most sacrosanct of Catholic beliefs, and that penitents rely on this unbreakable guarantee to freely confess and seek reconciliation with God. A priest who “breaks the seal,” the Catholic Conference added, “is automatically excommunicated.”

The bill analysis noted that other denominations have similar provisions for confession, including the Orthodox, Lutheran and Episcopal churches and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Amendments in the Senate limited Hill’s bill to apply only in cases where the confessor was a priest or church employee, making it more limited than proposals elsewhere. Hill argued that while the law generally treats communications with doctors and therapists as confidential, they still must report child abuse, and the same rules should apply to priests.

“Senate Bill 360 has one purpose only, not to restrict faith, but to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable of the faithful: children,” Hill said Tuesday.

But the bill analysis also raised some practical concerns. Catholic penitents confess to a priest who sits behind a screen, which shields their identity and would make it difficult for the priest to identify the confessor as a particular fellow priest or church employee.

The analysis also noted that child abusers would be unlikely to confess to a priest knowing they would be reported to authorities. And it said the misdemeanor penalty for not reporting would be unlikely to deter priests who would face automatic excommunication from the church.

The proposed California legislation and a similar effort in Australia caught the attention of Pope Francis, who ordered the publication of a document July 1 affirming the absolute secrecy of everything said in confession and calling on priests to defend it even at the cost of their lives. It called such legislation an “unacceptable offense against the liberty of the church, which does not receive its legitimacy from individual states, but from God.”

Rob Radel, a Florida lawyer who has studied the priest-penitent privilege and who has represented churches in abuse cases, said there’s little disagreement across the political spectrum about the need to punish child abusers. But he said efforts to breach the confidentiality of confession are problematic.

“If you’re going to do away with it,” Radel said, “nobody is ever going to talk to a priest or rabbi.”



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