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Tipsheet

California Bill Would Require Catholic Priests to Break the Seal of Confession to Report Abuse

AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, File

Lawmakers in California are currently considering a bill that would require priests in the Catholic Church to violate the seal of confession when it comes to the subject of child sexual abuse.

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The newly-proposed legislation was introduced Wednesday by Democratic State Senator Jerry Hill, according to a report by Fox News.

Senate Bill 360 is titled “Removing Clergy Exemption from Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting.” The bill would remove an exemption in the state’s “mandated reporter” law that allows all clergy members to withhold knowledge of suspected child abuse from law enforcement if that information is obtained during a "penitential communication," such as Catholic confession.

"The law should apply equally to all professionals who have been designated as mandated reporters of these crimes — with no exceptions, period," Hill said in a statement announcing SB 360. "The exemption for clergy only protects the abuser and places children at further risk."

“Individuals who harm children or are suspected of harming children must be reported so a timely investigation by law enforcement can occur,” added Hill.

There are currently 47 types of professionals who are required by state law to notify law enforcement about suspected abuse. Members of the clergy also fall under the law, unless they learn about the abuse during a confession. SB 360, however, would change that.

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California will ultimately be weighing the right to private penance against a desire to protect children, as both sides make their moral arguments.

The bill comes as Catholic bishops from all over the world are meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican in an effort to address the problem of clergy sexual abuse.

Meanwhile, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has announced an investigation into clergy sex abuse, calling for victims to come forward.

The California Catholic Conference has come out in opposition to SB 360.

“Inserting government into the Confessional does nothing to protect children and everything to erode the fundamental constitutional rights and liberties we enjoy as Americans,” Steve Pehanich, director of communications and advocacy for the California Catholic Conference, toldthe Los Angeles Times.

The seal of confession is considered to be sacred in the Catholic Church. According to the National Catholic Reporter, “any priest who directly betrays a penitent would incur an immediate and automatic excommunication.”

Father Roger J. Landry of Massachusetts wrote in the National Catholic Register in 2018 that a priest must honor the seal of confession, “even if he’s threatened with imprisonment, torture or death." Landry decried the international effort to force priests to violate the seal of confession.

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“Like the ancient Roman emperors used to try to break young Christian virgins by threatening to expose them to brothels if they didn’t capitulate to their whims, so still today some leaders and governments try to break priests’ fidelity by forcing them to violate the confessional seal,” wrote Landry.

Landry explained that: “...tyrants and totalitarians have a particular hatred for the seal of Confession and have tried to break this absolute commitment priests have made to God and to their penitents. They won’t tolerate a greater allegiance than to them and their dictates.”

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