Seal of Confession Under Attack? Delaware, Vermont Bills Draw Catholic Criticism

The legislation prompted criticism from the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington.

In Vermont, Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 3 to oppose Bill S. 16.
In Vermont, Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 3 to oppose Bill S. 16. (photo: asiandelight / Shutterstock)

Two state legislatures are considering ending any legal protections for a priest who learns about sexual abuse in the confessional. In response, Catholic leaders warned that the laws are unconstitutional, put priests in legal jeopardy, and endanger confidentiality with penitents.

Delaware’s House Bill 74 is among the proposals to end clergy protections in mandatory sexual abuse reporting laws.

“This act abrogates the privilege between priest and penitent in a sacramental confession relating to child abuse and neglect,” says the bill summary on the Delaware General Assembly’s website. “It requires priests to report child abuse and neglect or to give or accept evidence in a judicial proceeding relating to child abuse or neglect.”

The legislation prompted criticism from the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington.

“The sacrament of confession and its seal of confession is a fundamental aspect of the Church’s sacramental theology and practice. It is nonnegotiable,” the Wilmington Diocese said March 6. “No Catholic priest or bishop would ever break the seal of confession under any circumstances.”

“The Diocese of Wilmington considers the protection of the vulnerable to be one of the most important aims of public policy,” the diocese continued. “However, this legislation would not advance that vital objective.”

The requirement would be practically “nearly impossible to meet” for Catholic clergy because almost all sacramental confessions are anonymous.

“It would be a clear violation of the First Amendment for the government to interfere in this most sacred and ancient practice of our faith,” said the diocese, which voiced concerns about infringement on the rights of other faith communities.

Catholic canon law characterizes the seal of sacramental confession as “inviolable.” It says it is “absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.”

Breaking this seal incurs an automatic excommunication that only the pope can pardon, the Wilmington Diocese said. Delaware law already requires priests to be mandatory reporters of suspected abuse, and internal diocese policy requires priests to report suspected child abuse to civil authorities.

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, VT. Courtesy photograph.

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, VT. Courtesy photograph.

In Vermont, Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 3 to oppose Bill S. 16. The bill would fully eliminate clergy’s protection from the mandatory abuse reporting law if reporting abuse would violate a privilege or disclose confidential communication.

According to Bishop Coyne, the legislation “crosses a constitutionally protected element of our religious faith: the right to worship as we see fit.”

“There is no question that protecting children is essential and criminals must be held accountable for their crimes. But disregarding fundamental religious rights is unnecessary,” he said.

The exemption to the current law is “very narrow,” according to Bishop Coyne. No office conversations or counseling sessions are privileged. He characterized confession as “a moment of worship in which the penitent seeks God’s mercy.”

Bishop Coyne said all clergy and lay employees of the Burlington Diocese are mandatory reporters. Anyone who works for the diocese or diocesan parishes must have a criminal background check and safe environment training to recognize signs of child abuse.

“The priest has a sacred duty to maintain the secrecy of sacramental confession,” he said. “The sacramental seal of confession is the worldwide law of the Catholic Church, not just the diocese. No bishop has the authority to change this.”

“Requiring clergy to report child abuse learned during a penitential communication would infringe upon our First Amendment rights,” said the bishop. “Not just the rights of myself and the clergy but the rights of all of the Catholics in the state of Vermont and the rights of any other faith community that has that kind of a privileged penitential communication.”

From ancient times confessions could not be shared with anyone else even if it was to the advantage of the Church or the priest, according to Bishop Coyne.

“Today, the president of the United States could go to confession to a priest and the priest would not have to worry about being subpoenaed by Congress to expose what was said,” Bishop Coyne said.

Persons at the confessional do have to be truly penitent and seek to change their lives, the bishop added. Clergy could encourage the penitent to go to the authorities if a crime has been committed, but this is the penitent’s duty.

Other states are considering similar legislation.

In Kansas, State Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, introduced S.B. 87, which would require ordained ministers in the state to report suspected physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and neglect of children. Failure to report would mean a misdemeanor charge.

Though his 2019 bill on the same topic contained an exemption for the penitential privilege, his 2023 legislation does not exempt penitential communications, the Topeka-Capital Journal reported in January.

Chuck Weber, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, told CNA he knows of no plans to have a hearing on the bill.

“The Kansas Catholic Conference has long supported the measure, only with a penitential privilege protection clause,” he said.

Kansas priests are already “trained and complying with the responsibility to report instances of abuse and/or neglect,” Weber said.   

Holland told the Topeka-Capital Journal he was concerned the exemption would be “a back door to not reporting” that would discourage law enforcement investigations. Exempting confessions would be “the easy way out.”

“If we have a religious organization where this is a pervasive problem, my concern is that then the exemption becomes basically standard operating procedure where if something happens, run and go confess it, and now when the investigators come it’s like, ‘We don’t know, we’re not obligated to share that information,’” he said.

The Washington state Legislature had two bills concerning mandatory child abuse reporting by clergy. The Senate version, S.B. 5280, preserved the clergy-penitent privilege, while the House of Representative version, H.B. 1098, did not. The Senate unanimously passed its version of the bill on Wednesday and sent it to the House for approval. The House version was technically a viable bill but Wednesday was its last chance to pass the House, Adrienne Joyce, director of policy and communications, told CNA March 8.

Utah proposals to remove exemptions for confessions to clergy failed to advance in the most recent legislative session, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.