Catholic Civil Rights Group Condemns State Legislation to Force Priests to Break Seal of Confession

Bills in the states of Vermont, Delaware, and Washington would include, in mandatory reporting laws, information about child sexual abuse a priest learns during the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a move the Catholic League states lacks sound reasoning.

Last week Catholic League President Bill Donohue warned the “seal of confession” is “under fire” in Vermont, noting the Catholic civil rights organization is once again “doing battle with lawmakers who want to violate” the priest-penitent privilege, mostly in legislation concerning the sexual abuse of minors.

“Whenever we have dealt with this matter, I always ask those sponsoring a bill … the same question,” Donohue wrote. “‘Where is the evidence that the priest-penitent privilege plays a role in the unfolding of the clergy sexual abuse scandal?’ I am aware of none.”

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote in an opinion piece published Sunday that while every “reasonable” person may agree those who hurt children through abuse and neglect must be brought to justice, it is widely accepted that the relationship between a clergy member and a penitent “are so important to society, and so dependent on absolute trust, that the law cannot compel one party to reveal what the other has said in confidence.”

Jacoby noted that states such as Vermont, Washington, and Delaware have mounted legislative campaigns to “overrule the clergy-penitent privilege.”

“That would mean that priests could be required to report information even when it was obtained under the seal of the confessional — a violation so grave in the eyes of the Catholic Church that a priest who commits it is punished with automatic excommunication,” he wrote.

Vermont state Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), for example, is sponsoring the legislation in his state, claiming to the Associated Press he was “unaware” that Vermont’s mandated reporting of child abuse law contained an exemption for members of the clergy to whom a penitent had confessed such abuse during the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Bill S.16 “proposes to repeal the four-pronged exception that permits clergy to not report child abuse and neglect when it is received in confidence while acting as a spiritual advisor.”

“My gut reaction is nobody should get a free pass,” Sears said in late December.

In addressing similar legislation in the state of Washington, however, Ethics and Public Policy Center fellow Eric Kniffin wrote in a public comment to Substitute House Bill 1098, the “clergy penitent privilege is not ‘loophole,’ – it is a venerable part of our legal system, and there is no evidence that the seal of the confessional has contributed to the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.”

The measure, Kniffin said, “would make Washington State’s mandatory reporter law the most radical in the country.”

“By explicitly overruling the clergy penitent privilege, while leaving the attorney client privilege untouched, Washington State would go where no state has gone before, setting the State up for a civil rights lawsuit I am confident it would lose,” he added.

In Delaware, state Rep. Eric Morrison (D-Newark) introduced a bill in early March to eliminate the clergy-penitent seal.

House Bill 74 is summarized as an Act that “abrogates the privilege between priest and penitent in a sacramental confession relating to child abuse and neglect. It requires priests to report child abuse and neglect or to give or accept evidence in a judicial proceeding relating to child abuse or neglect.”

According to a report Monday at WHYY News, Morrison, said the attorney-client privilege should be the sole exemption to his state’s mandatory child abuse reporting law.

“I believe that this should also apply to priests,’’ Morrison said. “It’s really about protecting our children.”

As Catholic News Agency reported, Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington testified before the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee in early March that the legislation “crosses a constitutionally protected element of our religious faith: the right to worship as we see fit.”

“We are not doubting his motive,” Donohue wrote Monday about Morrison. “We are questioning his reasoning.”

“Going after child sexual abusers is noble, but it can be done without sacrificing the priest-penitent relationship,” the Catholic leader maintained. “Without the assurance of confidentiality, no priest would offer confession and no layperson would seek absolution.”

But Donohue noted as well the faulty reasoning involved in the legislative move comes from the notion that “it is not unusual for priests to learn of such crimes in the confessional.”

“There is no evidence to support this idea,” he asserted. “Indeed, anyone who would violate a minor is so morally debased in the first place that the last thing he would do is seek penance from a priest.”

Donohue also observed there is reason to believe proponents of the Delaware measure believe the clergy sexual abuse crisis is continuing in the present day.

State Sen. Nicole Poore (D-New Castle), who claims to be Catholic, helped introduce the bill that would require priests in Delaware to report confessions of child abuse to law enforcement or child protection officials – or face heavy fines.

“We should protect sacred places,’’ Poore told WHYY News, “but not if it turns a sacred place into an unsafe place.”

The report noted:

Poore suggested that such exemptions likely protected priests in Delaware and 32 other states from prosecution of their own child sex offenses over the years. Facing possible bankruptcy in 2011, the Wilmington diocese itself paid $77 million to settle a lawsuit in 2011 brought by 150 alleged sex abuse victims of priests.

“There were a lot of priests that were absolved from the sins that they created and it was not reportable,’’ she said. “And that’s why the state and other states found themselves in a very tenuous situation.”

“This is rubbish,” Donohue stated. “The clergy sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church took place mostly between 1965 and 1985.”

Summarizing some of what he related in his book titled The Truth about Clergy Sexual Abuse: Clarifying the Facts and the Causes, he noted:

… the reforms enacted over the past two decades have been a stunning success: the average number of credible accusations made against approximately 50,000 members of the clergy is in the single digits. The fact is that most of the molesters are either dead or have been kicked out of the priesthood.

“If lawmakers find it necessary to break the priest-penitent relationship, are they prepared to bust journalists who refuse to give up their sources?” the Catholic leader asked. “Will they go after psychologists who refuse to divulge what they learn from their patients? What about lawyers who find out things from their clients that must remain secret? Will the lawmakers bust that relationship as well?”

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Susan Berry, PhD is national education editor at The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Catholic Priest in Confession” by cottonbro studio.


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