Should California force priests to report child-molestation confessions?

Church leaders say it violates religious freedom

Dozens of people gathered at Our Lady of the Rosary in Palo Alto Saturday to discuss national reports of clergy abuse within the Roman Catholic church. Tatiana Sanchez/Bay Area News Group
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The law has long treated confession of sin to a priest as sacred. Even clergy who hear a fellow priest’s confession to sexually abusing a child generally can’t be compelled to report it to authorities.

But should they be?

California lawmakers are considering that fundamental question amid heightened scrutiny of the child sex abuse scandal roiling the Roman Catholic Church. The state Senate resoundingly approved a bill last week that would force clergy who hear confessions of child sex abuse from another priest to report it. Church leaders say it is an unconstitutional government intrusion and violation of religious freedom.

“Faith leaders have been the only exception to this rule,” the bill’s author, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said, adding that even doctors and spouses must report suspected child abuse reported to them in confidence. “Instead of protecting children, some have been shielding abusers. It is time for California to put children first.”

The California Catholic Conference opposes Hill’s bill, SB 360, arguing it will not help protect children and dangerously weaken religious freedom by “interjecting the government into the confessional.”

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

“We are dealing here with an egregious violation of the principle of religious liberty,” Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said in a statement.

However, the bill comes at a time when the Roman Catholic Church is under fire over priests who sexually abused children. Reporting of widespread abuse in the Boston diocese prompted U.S. bishops in 2002 to adopt a Charter for the Protection of Children, known as the Dallas Charter, to prevent child abuse within the church.

But more recent revelations like a bombshell Pennsylvania investigation in August that found widespread child sex abuse and cover-ups over decades in six dioceses has sparked fresh outrage. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is now investigating the Golden State’s dioceses.

The bill is headed to the state Assembly after passing out of the Senate on a 30-4 vote. Senators Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Hills, Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, Brian Jones, R-El Cajon, and Jeff Stone, R-Murrieta, were opposed.

Four other senators — Benjamin Allen, D-Redondo Beach, Andreas Borgeas, R-Fresno, John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, and Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga — did not record votes.

Supporters include Crime Victims United California, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the National Association of Social Workers and Consumer Attorneys of California.

Hill said that California hasn’t before attempted legislation challenging the “clergy-penitent privilege” protecting priests from having to disclose child abuse confessions. But he said Connecticut, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia already have similar statutes.

Steve Pehanich, spokesman for the California Catholic Conference, disputed that claim, saying “we can’t find any that removed the exemption.”

An analysis of the bill for the Senate Public Safety Committee said “only 6 states deny the clergy-penitent privilege in cases of child abuse or neglect,” and added that their “ability to compel testimony from clergy who learned of abuse during a penitential communication may be limited.”

The analysis said the constitutionality of a statute that requires clergy to report child abuse but “does not provide an exemption for penitential communications remains an evolving legal question.”

Hill’s bill would not only remove the clergy-penitent privilege in formal confessions of child sex abuse by priests to fellow priests, but also clarify that admissions outside a formal confession to an ordained priest are not exempt from the reporting requirement.

Hill called it a “weak argument” that the Constitution’s First Amendment religious liberty protection allows a priest to keep secret a fellow priest’s admitted sexual abuse of a child. He noted that free speech rights don’t let someone incite a dangerous stampede by yelling “fire” in a crowded theater where nothing’s burning.

California, Hill added, outlaws polygamy practiced by some religious sects, and recently eliminated the religious exemption for being vaccinated against communicable diseases.

“None of our freedoms is absolute,” Hill said. “The reason they’re not absolute is there are times when the greater good is not being served by that purpose. If you look at child abuse and neglect, there’s no greater good.”

But Pehanich called it a slippery slope, arguing that if government can force a priest to disclose a confession of sexually abusing a child, why not anyone’s confessed misdeeds, like check kiting?

“You start doing it for this,” Pehanich said, “you start doing this for everything.”

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