Editor's Note: This story was updated after posting to include a statement from Sen. Jerry Hill.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A measure that required California priests to break the seal of the confessional was pulled by its sponsor, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, July 8, offering a reprieve for state Catholics who strongly opposed the measure.
“The action follows the delivery of tens of thousands of letters, emails and phone calls from Catholics and others concerned with the free expression of religion,” said the California Catholic Conference in a statement released late July 8 that confirmed the news.
If passed, S.B. 360 would have required priests to alert local law enforcement about any knowledge or suspicion of child abuse received while hearing the confession of another priest or colleague. And though the bill’s language had been modified to rule out the reporting of such information from the vast majority of penitents, it continued to stir alarm in dioceses and parishes across the state.
“Analysis of S.B. 360 by the staff of the Public Safety Committee [of the California State Assembly], released today, also raised significant First Amendment concerns, emphasized that no other state had taken a similar approach and pointed to the impracticality of enforcing the new law,” said the California Catholic Conference in its statement marking the news.
Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles underscored the importance of this critical political development.
“S.B. 360 was a dangerous piece of legislation,” said Archbishop Gomez in a statement released late Monday.
“If any legislature can force believers to reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings shared with God in confession, then truly there is no area of human life that is free or safe from government intrusion.”
At the same time, he also made clear that the Golden State’s Catholic shepherds would continue to firmly support and adhere to mandatory-reporting laws that require pastors and other Church employees to forward allegations and concerns about suspected abuse to civil and Church authorities.
“From the beginning of this debate, we have argued that S.B. 360 would do nothing to protect children from the scourge of child abuse,” he said, and then he listed the norms and protocols already in place to protect minors and vulnerable adults. And emphasized noted the need to continue to combat clergy sexual abuse.
“So, as we thank God today for helping to keep confession sacred, we need to commit ourselves again — every one of us, in every faith and walk of life — to eliminate this scourge of abuse,” he said, in an implicit acknowledgement of the enormous damage that the abuse crisis has inflicted on the Catholic Church’s moral credibility.
Sen. Hill continued to defend the need for his bill, but he acknolwledged that it did “not have enough support” from assembly members.
“The bill is on pause; it has not been withdrawn,” he said in a July 8 statement provided to the Register.
The California Catholic Conference statement explained that “the California Legislature has a two-year session, the bill can still be considered next year.”
Hundreds of state Catholics were scheduled to visit Sacramento July 9 for an assembly committee hearing on the bill, and many were surprised and happy that the measure was off the table, perhaps for good.
Kathy Holmes, a parishioner at Our Lady of the Angels in Burlingame, California, where a bus had been scheduled to take local Catholics to the state capitol two hours away, was relieved to hear the news.
Holmes believes the bill would violate “free exercise of religion,” as guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. And she worried that the legislation would undermine the faithful’s trust in the sacramental seal and so discourage them from seeking forgiveness for their sins and receiving the graces from the sacrament of penance.
But she also described the bill as ill-conceived, with some glaring practical impediments.
Because the sacrament of confession often happens using a screen that allows the penitent to be anonymous, “the priest cannot practically identify abusers,” said Holmes, echoing the objections of other state Catholics who argued that Hill appeared to be unfamiliar with the practice of confession.
Holmes noted that the bill’s sponsor expressed the need for such legislation because he said he had evidence “showing that had his law already been in effect [civil authorities] would have been able to identify” abusers.
But Holmes questioned whether Hill possessed such information.
Our Lady of Angels was among a vast number of Catholic parishes across the state that sent letters opposing the bill. The Los Angeles Archdiocese reported that an estimated 100,000 people registered their opposition to the measure. A representative from the Archdiocese of San Francisco told the Register that 20,000 letters have been sent by local Catholics.
After S.B. 360 passed the Senate in a 32-2 vote in late May, Archbishop Gomez argued that the urgent, ongoing need to protect children from predatory clerics did not depend on a measure that clearly violated the sanctity of the confessional.
Throughout the legislative process, Hill had continued to insist that his bill provided a necessary corrective to alleged abuses of the confessional seal by predatory clerics, “resulting in the unreported and systemic abuse of thousands of children across multiple denominations and faiths.”
This accusation, he contended, was supported by “recent investigations by 14 attorneys general, the federal government and other countries.”
However, critics of the proposed legislation contended that Hill had provided no hard data to justify such a radical measure. And they noted that Church law effectively bars sacramental confession for the purpose of facilitating abuse or with the expectation that it would continue unchecked.
Now, the “pause” on the confession bill marks a major win for Church leaders and the faithful, especially in a state that diverges from Church teaching on abortion, assisted suicide and conscience rights.
The outpouring of opposition to the confession bill, said Archbishop Gomez, “was a sign of the great faith and vitality of our Catholic community and the importance of confession to our religious identity and practice.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.