SACRAMENTO - California’s state senate will vote on a bill that would require priests to violate the seal of confession in certain limited circumstances. An amended text of the bill passed the Senate appropriations’ committee May 16.
The bill, as amended, would require priests to report to law enforcement knowledge or suspicion of child abuse gained from hearing the sacramental confessions of other priests or co-workers.
The bill originally would have required California priests to violate the seal of confession anytime they gained knowledge or suspicion of child abuse from hearing the confession of any penitent.
In a May 20 statement, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles said the bill remains “an unacceptable violation of our religious freedoms that will do nothing to protect children.”
As amended, he said, “SB 360 still denies the sanctity of confession to every priest in the state and to thousands of Catholics who work with priests in parishes and other Church agencies and ministries.”
According to Angelus News, more than 1,300 people contacted California state senators before the May 16 hearing on the bill, encouraging senators not to require priests violate the confessional seal. Gomez expressed gratitude for those calls.
Clergy in California are already required to report knowledge or suspicion of child abuse in most circumstances, though penitential conversations like sacramental confession are exempted, as are other kinds of privileged conversations, including those covered by attorney-client privilege.
The bill’s sponsor, California state Senator Jerry Hill (D-Calif. 13), has claimed that “the clergy-penitent privilege has been abused on a large scale, resulting in the unreported and systemic abuse of thousands of children across multiple denominations and faiths.”
The senator has claimed that such abuse has been revealed through “recent investigations by 14 attorneys general, the federal government, and other countries.”
In response to questions from CNA about those investigations, Hill’s office provided two resources to CNA. One was a news article from PBS, reporting that several states have undertaken investigations into clerical sexual abuse, but not explicitly mentioning abuse of the sacrament or seal of confession.
The other was a 2017 report from Australia’s Royal Commission, appointed to investigate child sexual abuse in that country.
The Royal Commission report suggests that there should be no exemption from abuse reporting for religious confession. While the commission's executive summary states that "the practice of the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) contributed... to inadequate institutional responses to abuse," it does not provide data detailing the frequency of that contribution.
Hill’s office did not respond to follow-up questions about that report, or about whether the senator considers attorney-client privilege, which is not challenged by the bill, to represent a potential problem of equal proportions.
Gomez, for his part, called Catholics and lawmakers to try other approaches to fighting the child abuse in California.
“Even as amended, SB 360 remains an unacceptable violation of our religious freedoms that will do nothing to protect children. As a Catholic community, let us continue to work with lawmakers for a bill that truly advances our shared goals of fighting the scourge of child sexual abuse in our society,” he wrote.
The bill could be subject to a Senate vote as early as May 21.