Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Open confessions

Religious Liberty | California moves to force ministers to report admissions of child abuse
by Rachel Lynn Aldrich
Posted 4/30/19, 05:28 pm

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.

First Liberty First Liberty Vandalism to car belonging to a member of Light of the World Gospel Ministries in Walthill, Neb.

Unfriendly neighbors

Opponents of a church’s expansion plans in the village of Walthill, Neb., have thrown bricks at church members and vandalized their vehicles in recent weeks.

In July 2018, First Liberty, a law firm that specializes in religious liberty cases, filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Light of the World Gospel Ministries, alleging village officials had unlawfully denied the church permission to demolish dilapidated buildings on its Main Street property and build a new and larger facility. The church contends that Walthill officials revoked its building permit without reason and, after enacting a new ordinance requiring a special-use permit, denied the permit because the village wanted tax-paying businesses in the small and mostly vacant business district.

The suit says Walthill violated the church’s First Amendment rights and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibits land use regulations that impose a substantial burden on religious exercise unless the government has a compelling interest and narrowly tailors the regulation to meet it.

RLUIPA has proven particularly controversial in small communities with limited land area that are strapped for tax revenue. In January, Tree of Life Christian Schools in Upper Arlington, Ohio, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene on its behalf in a zoning dispute with the town, which won’t let it build a new school because it says the land should be used for tax-generating commercial activity.

In Walthill, there may be more to it: Festering hostility toward the church by locals may have fueled the vandalism. The village of 750 residents is entirely within the boundaries of the Omaha Reservation, and Native Americans make up two-thirds of the village’s population.

“The village board has shown clear hostility to the church,” First Liberty counsel Roger Byron told me. He said the village board revoked the permit after several people complained about the church’s religion at a meeting of the board. Later, the board informed Light of the World that it had to obtain a special use permit and then denied the permit without giving a reason.

“I believe we are experiencing blatant religious discrimination,” Light of the World Pastor Paul Malcomson said in a statement. “What we’re trying to do is breathe life into this community both spiritually and economically. Our heart is not to fight the politicians; our heart is to work with the politicians to see this community turned around.” —Steve West

Facebook/Hebrew Discovery Center Facebook/Hebrew Discovery Center The Hebrew Discovery Center in Woodland Hills, Calif.

Wrong side of the law

A California court has fined an Orthodox Jewish rabbi $6,000 for reporting the vandalism of his synagogue to police.

In October 2016, as the Hebrew Discovery Center in Woodland Hills held a religious ceremony on the eve of Yom Kippur, activists entered the synagogue, stole electronics, and caused thousands of dollars in property damage. A rabbi witnessed the vandalism and videoed some of it. Police charged one person, but the case was dismissed because prosecutors did not have enough evidence.

When one activist brought a lawsuit against the rabbi for reporting her to the police, the judge awarded her $6,000 in damages.

“This is an outrageous decision that penalizes a rabbi for simply reporting a crime that he witnessed,” said Stephanie Taub, senior counsel for First Liberty, which is representing the rabbi. Taub said First Liberty would appeal the decision, adding that suits against individuals for reporting an unproved incident are “disfavored under California law because the state wants to encourage those who are the victims of crimes to freely communicate with law enforcement.” —S.W.

Government counts unbelief as faith

The Internal Revenue Service has recognized the Satanic Temple as a church, the group announced last week. Churches are exempt from IRS filing requirements that other nonprofit organizations must follow.

“This acknowledgement will help make sure the Satanic Temple has the same access to public spaces as other religious organizations, affirm our standing in court when battling religious discrimination, and enable us to apply for faith-based government grants,” the organization said in a statement.

The Satanic Temple does not hold to belief in Satan nor any ostensibly religious tenets. It was founded by atheists and adheres to a set of secular humanist beliefs. —S.W.

Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Rachel is an assistant editor for WORLD Digital. Follow Rachel on Twitter @Rachel_Lynn_A.

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  • Narissara
    Posted: Thu, 05/02/2019 10:19 am

    “a bill like this cuts off the only channel for the few who might have otherwise sought help”. 

    Whether the state gets its way or not, the heart of the issue is whether or not there has been true repentance.  These people who are supposedly seeking help are repeat offenders.  Getting help is only one piece of the restoration process.  There also needs to be reconciliation and restitution toward the one sinned against.  Removing bishops and priests only when the media forces the church’s hand is neither, it’s merely placating the masses.  And who knows what goes on in the convents between older women and inexperienced novices?  

    Last year World reported on a meeting the pope had with an LGBT man where he “apologized” for the abuses he had suffered at the hands of priests as a boy — and then told him God loves him and made him the way he was — completely sweeping aside any connection between child sexual abuse and gender confusion/homosexuality.  Instead of accepting responsibility on behalf of the Catholic Church and the sinful men and women involved, he tried to shift the blame onto God Almighty himself.  On top of that, the same religious system that claims the priesthood is necessary to act as mediator between man and God publicly recused itself from its alleged obligations and left this particular man on his own, still trapped in his sin.  That was quite possibly one of the most unloving things a man of the cloth could do to another human being.