National Catholic Register


Confessional Secrets Kept Safe, Despite Connecticut Threat

BY John Burger

May 19-25, 2002 Issue | Posted 5/19/02 at 1:00 PM


HARTFORD, Conn.—After a nearly weeklong debate, Connecticut legislators passed stricter sexual abuse legislation without a controversial passage about priests reporting what they hear in the confessional.

The bill, which increases penalties for the sexual abuse of minors and extends the statute of limitations for prosecution of such crimes, originally contained a provision that some thought would have required priests and other clergymen to report information they learn in private conversations if they felt that someone was in imminent danger of being abused.

In the case of Catholic priests, that would have jeopardized the sacramental seal of Confession.

The provision would have allowed a clergyman to reveal privileged communication, such as the matter of a confession, in a civil or criminal proceeding if the person who told him that information gave his consent. But that consent would not be required if the clergyman believed there was “risk of imminent personal injury to the person or other individuals of if child abuse, abuse of an elderly individual or abuse of an individual who is disabled or incompetent is known or in good faith is suspected.”

The provision came to light during a debate in the state House in Hartford the night of May 2. Rep. T.R. Rowe, a Republican from Trumbull, made an unsuccessful attempt to amend the bill so as to exempt privileged communications made to a member of the clergy during “a religious ritual.” He and Thomas Conway, a Waterbury Democrat, were the only two to vote against the bill, with 144 representatives in favor.

The Connecticut Catholic Conference alerted people to the provision, prompting an avalanche of phone calls to legislators' homes over the weekend.

When it took up the measure May 7, the Senate struck the controversial provision with an amendment offered by Republican Sen. William Aniskovich, the minority leader pro tempore, and 17 others. With hours to go before the official midnight adjournment of the spring legislative session, and without agreement on a state budget, the House overwhelmingly passed the amended sex abuse bill May 8. Gov. John Roland was expected to sign it.

In a statement, Aniskovich, a Catholic, called the original legislation “nothing short of a reactionary device to bring even more attention to the horrible issues currently surrounding the Catholic Church.” But, he said, “in their effort to target Catholic priests, supporters of the measure took direct aim at the freedom to practice religion as is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

There were other amendments in the Senate that attempted to protect confidential sessions between layper-sons and clergy. One would have specifically protected Catholic priests from having to “disclose privileged communications made to him during the sacrament of reconciliation.”

A measure offered by Sen. Kevin Sullivan, a Democrat who is president pro tempore, would have exempted clergymen from revealing information learned in confidence during areligious ceremony” when that revelation would have conflicted with tenets of the faith involved.

Seal is Sacrosanct

Clashes between the sacramental seal of Confession and public law are not new. The 14th-century St. John Nepomucene was martyred when he refused King Wencelslaus IV's demands that he reveal the contents of his queen's confession.

In 1996, jail officials in Oregon recorded a sacramental confession of an inmate imprisoned for a triple murder. The uproar over the taping led to a 1997 circuit court ruling that the taping was an act akin to undue search.

A bill recently was signed into law in Massachusetts that adds priests to the list of professionals who must report possible cases of child sexual abuse to the Department of Social Services. But it exempts information gained in Confession or“similarly confidential communication in other religious faiths.”

Connecticut law has long required certain professionals who have some degree of contact with children to report suspected abuse, neglect and at-risk situations to the Department of Children and Families. Priests have been“mandated reporters” since 1971.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that“every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him.”

“He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents' lives,” the Catechism states in No. 1467. There are no exceptions.

“If an exception is made, a person won't have confidence in the sacrament,” said Legion of Christ Father Walter Schu, who teaches at the Legionaries of Christ novitiate in Cheshire, Conn.

Rep. Rowe, a Catholic, said he was offended by the attempt to“impact a Catholic's right to a sacrament.” He felt that the language might have slipped in because of“insensitivity” to religious issues on the part of those who draft legislation but that his colleagues should have been more diligent in correcting the error.

“This seemed to tread new ground,” he said.“The seal of Confession had always been recognized by governments.”

But Rep. Michael Lawlor, a Democrat from Branford, contended that the provision would not have required a priest to break the seal of Confession but would simply have allowed him to report what he heard in Confession without violating the legal confidentiality protection.

Rep. Ernest Newton, a Democrat from Bridgeport, said he was opposed to removing the provision but voted for the final bill because he believed in strengthening penalties against child abusers.“If we're serious about preventing the sexual assault of minors, then we've got to undo a lot of privileges we've given to certain people with regard to children,” he told Associated Press.

But, in an interview, Newton agreed that the provision would have interfered with the free exercise of religion.“Up to this point the state has respected that right [the priest-penitent privilege]. But with all that's going on now, what do we do to protect children?”

Not to protect the seal of Confession would be to“allow the legitimate concerns over child sexual abuse to devolve into a church-state scandal of its own,” said Catholic League president William Donohue, as the House was set to take its final vote on the bill May 8.

“It has long been respected that what is said between a penitent and a priest is no one else's business,” Donohue said.“That would certainly include agents of the state.”