The California legislature moved this month to require members of the clergy to report to the government some of what congregants tell them during confession. The bill, introduced by state Sen. Jerry Hill, a Democrat, would make clergy subject to criminal prosecution if they didn’t report suspicions of child abuse or neglect that arise during confession or other confidential conversations. The Senate Committee on Public Safety passed the bill on to the Appropriations Committee on April 2.
Ministers and other spiritual advisers already must report instances of child abuse, but the United States has always made an exception for information received during penitential communication. The Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations specifically require confession to be confidential, and Catholic canon law automatically excommunicates priests who break the confessional seal. Steve Pehanich, a spokesman for the California Catholic Conference, told me that Catholics consider confession a sacrament, and infringing on it would cause real harm.
“[Confession is] a very specific, religious, and faith-filled experience that is between a penitent and the priest or spiritual adviser,” he said, adding that forcing priests to break confidence “threatens everybody’s religious liberty. If [congregants] can’t get counseling, if they’re afraid to go for spiritual counseling, if they’re afraid to go for reconciliation, they’re going to have more difficulties in life.”
Pehanich pointed out that California isn’t just pushing back against the First Amendment. The confessional seal has been protected since the 10th century in England, and many other countries have laws protecting the confidentiality of confession, as well.
“Over the centuries, as recently as the last century … priests have been martyred rather than violate the seal,” he said. “We take this seriously. This is not something that you do lightly.”
Hill said the law is needed because abusive priests have used the confessional seal to hide sexual exploitation of children. The Catholic Church is under scrutiny because of accusations of clergy sexual abuse around the world. In Pennsylvania, a grand jury in August 2018 revealed the abuse of more than 1,000 children in the state. Pope Francis held a four-day summit on the crisis in February, but critics both within and outside the church said the meeting yielded little concrete action to protect abuse victims.
“Those in the clergy have been able to abuse and get away with it,” Hill told KPIX-TV in San Francisco earlier this year. “This bill will require that everyone has to say something when they see it.”
At least six other states—New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia—already include confessional communication in mandatory reporting requirements.
Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, told me that the bill is neither the most effective nor the least restrictive method to protect children. Many professions, like teachers and ministers outside of confession, already have a legal obligation to report suspected child abuse. Pehanich and Dacus both said that, while few abusers would ever willingly talk about their crimes, a bill like this cuts off the only channel for the few who might have otherwise sought help.
“The problem here is that it actually creates greater harm for children as a whole,” Dacus said. “Individuals who harm children or others will simply not meet with a minister or a priest to confess it if they know … that it’s going to be reported against them. So, the first step of healing and prevention is taken off the table.”
The bill is awaiting scheduling of a floor vote in the Senate.
Dacus said he expected it would pass unless there was major pushback. “We at Pacific Justice Institute are committed to defending religious freedom and will oppose growing actions by government to reduce the critical role that ministries play in a healthy society,” he said.