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Why Catholics Are Up in Arms Over the "Hostile" California Confession Bill
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=37547"><span class="small">Ruth Graham, Slate</span></a>   
Monday, 10 June 2019 08:33

Graham writes: "Last month state senators in Sacramento passed a bill that some say will force Catholic priests to violate a Catholic sacrament: confession, also known as the sacrament of reconciliation."

Historically, American law has carved out a 'clergy-penitent privilege' for the confessional that is similar to attorney-client privilege. (photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash)
Historically, American law has carved out a 'clergy-penitent privilege' for the confessional that is similar to attorney-client privilege. (photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash)

Why Catholics Are Up in Arms Over the "Hostile" California Confession Bill

By Ruth Graham, Slate

10 June 19


he capital of California was named for a river that was in turn named for the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist. So it’s notable that last month state senators in Sacramento passed a bill that some say will force Catholic priests to violate a different Catholic sacrament: confession, also known as the sacrament of reconciliation.

Confession, as shown in a zillion pop cultural depictions, is a private conversation between a priest and an individual, meant to encourage Catholics to examine their consciences and request forgiveness from God. The format varies—for example, the two parties may sit face to face, or with an opaque screen between them—but the penitent is encouraged to offer a full inventory of her sins since her last visit. In return, the priest is bound by an ironclad oath of secrecy called the “seal of confession.”

Historically, American law has protected that seal, carving out a “clergy-penitent privilege” for the confessional that is similar to attorney-client privilege. But a bill making its way through the California state Legislature would ever-so-slightly crack the seal open. SB 360, which passed the state Senate in May, would require priests to report suspicions of child abuse obtained through confession in some circumstances. The bill is expected to be voted on by the lower house of the state Legislature in September, according to Catholic News Service. And many Catholics are not happy about it.

Clergy are already among the many professionals deemed mandated reporters for child abuse in California. But state law makes an exception for “penitential communications” obtained in settings where the cleric has a sacramental duty to maintain secrecy. As reporter Jack Jenkins recently pointed out, California’s pathbreaking 1990 law designating clergy as mandated reporters included a confessional carve-out that many other states added when they later adopted similar laws.

The new bill might seem like a very modest burden. In fact, its current language is even narrower than earlier drafts: In the version that passed, a priest would be bound to report suspicions of abuse only if the confessor is a fellow priest or an employee of the same institution—almost all lay people would remain unaffected. But some Catholics remain alarmed by what they see as a state intrusion into a sacred ritual. The policy arm of the state’s conference of Catholic bishops called it “an attack on the sanctity of the confessional.” Robert Barron, a prominent bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, called it “an egregious violation of the principle of religious liberty” and wrote that it “should alarm not only every Catholic in the country, but indeed the adepts of any religion.” And in an interview with the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner this week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat listed the bill as an example of liberals in power “taking stances that are increasingly hostile to conservative Christian institutions.”

These objections can be hard to understand, especially in the context of renewed awareness of the catastrophically widespread sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church. No one who objects to the bill would say they want to protect abusers. But it’s not just a human tradition, the argument goes; it’s a ritual instituted by God. And if priests are required to report suspicions of child abuse, then why not other serious crimes? Others raise practical concerns: What if a priest cannot identify the confessor because of the privacy screen between them?

The California bill would represent a potentially life-altering decision for priests. The church’s own laws forbid priests from betraying a penitent’s confidentiality for any reason, with an automatic and immediate punishment of excommunication. (This means more than the loss of a job: It signifies expulsion from Christian community and a ban on receiving future sacraments.) Throughout church history, there are stories of priests choosing to be executed rather than betray the seal. Some priests say that if faced with the decision that could be forced on them by the California bill, they would defer to the church’s law. “Break the seal or go to jail? Absolutely, I would not break the seal of confession,” one Nebraska priest told Catholic News Service this week. “I would go to jail.”

Because of the nature of the confessional, the only information about how it has actually been used by pedophiles is anecdotal. In 2003, an Australian priest said in an affidavit that he had confessed to 30 priests more than 1,000 times over many decades that he had molested children. (He pleaded guilty and served six years in prison.) But it’s not at all clear that such confessions are common. Priest Stephen Rossetti, a professor at the Catholic University of America who has written about priests’ psychology and wellness issues, told the National Catholic Register that in his 35 years as a priest, he has never heard anyone confess to abusing a minor, nor heard of anyone else who has. Rossetti opposes the California bill, calling it “a dangerous precedent.”

But some Catholic thinkers say it is time to consider breaking the confessional seal. “Secrecy in the church is a major problem,” James Connell, a canon lawyer and a priest in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, told me. Connell sees a connection between Catholic resistance to the California bill and a broader culture of secrecy within the church. There’s “the pontifical secret,” a rule of confidentiality around a wide range of Vatican documents and communications. And then there’s the oath taken by new cardinals, who swear never to divulge any secrets that might dishonor the church. As critics see it, these are traditions that reflect cultural priorities of self-protection over transparency and truth.

Those other traditions of secrecy are also being reexamined in some Catholic circles in response to the abuse crisis. In February, a professor of canon law delivered a keynote address at a Vatican summit on protecting minors in which she called for reforms to “pontifical secrecy.” She urged a revision that “allows the development of a climate of greater transparency and trust, avoiding the idea that the secret is to hide problems rather than to protect the assets at stake.”

Connell argues that in these extraordinary circumstances, when the church has failed over and over again to protect children from harm, confession deserves to be reexamined, too. “We have a responsibility to try to prevent aggressors from harming people,” Connell said. “With this privilege [of not reporting child abusers who confess], we’re reversing that. We protect the culprit and endanger the child. This is the reverse of the catechism—and of common sense.”

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+1 # jwb110 2019-06-10 10:45
The illusion may be that all cases of child abuse only happen in the Catholic system. I would out money on it existing in some way in all churched. So if this statute applies to one group in some way it should apply to them all.
+5 # HenryS1 2019-06-10 11:36
When institutions with power are attacked, if they can't avoid responsibility completely, they deflect the damage downward to the lowest level individuals that can be scapegoats. Think Abu Ghraib. Think about oil spills, or Wells Fargo, or Navy ships in collisions.

Bishops and cardinals in the Church have administered their domains with an accountant's focus on money and manpower. Then come politics and public relations. People do not become bishops and cardinals because they are the holiest men in their hierarchies. I am not saying this should be the case.


My totally personal sense of right and wrong is outraged by moving pederasts around like pieces on a board game, to keep them from being removed from the playing board.

This law hits individual parish priests at the lowest level in a really sensitive place. As a cradle Catholic with years of adult pastoral leadership training, I think I can say I feel how this hurts, and where, personally. Confession is a part of Catholicism that is not experienced by most Christians. I am not going to try to analyze it here, except to say that if you grow up Catholic, your childhood memories of confession are deep and sensitive. That is the intent. I don't think I could explain it, really.

How many children are going to be saved by making priests who hear confession from other priests, choose whether to bring in law enforcement?

Target those at the top, in the know, and those raping the kids.
+2 # chrisconno 2019-06-10 15:02
And why should the church have so much autonomy and secrecy when it comes to crimes like child rape, adult rape or murder? How can they profess to be abiding by god and Jesus if they are hiding such crimes against actual human beings? So much is corrupted by power, including all churches.
+2 # Texas Aggie 2019-06-10 16:07
If the catholic church is so upset about this, then when there is a confession, part of the penance should be that the pederast self-report to the authorities. Otherwise no absolution. And if the confessor is the victim of sexual abuse, then there is no confessional seal and the priest is duty bound to report it.