In wake of church sex abuse, California bill seeks to force clergy to break seal of confession

by Leonardo Blair |

(Photo: Creative Commons/Hernán Piñera)A priest.

In the wake of multiple clergy sexual abuse scandals, a California lawmaker is seeking to pass legislation in that state that could force Catholic priests and other clergy to violate the seal of confession to report child sex abuse.

Democrat state Sen. Jerry Hill, introduced Senate Bill 360 last Wednesday that would remove an exemption in California's "mandated reporter" law that allows all members of the clergy to withhold knowledge of suspected child abuse from law enforcement if that information is obtained during "a penitential communication," such as Catholic confession.

"This bill would delete that exception for a pentitential communication, thereby requiring clergy to make a mandated report even if they acquired the knowledge or reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect during a penitential communication," the bill said.

In a statement cited by The Sacramento Bee, Hill said: "Individuals who harm children or are suspected of harming children must be reported so a timely investigation by law enforcement can occur."

The bill comes in the wake of a recent reckoning on child sexual abuse among both Catholic and evangelical clergy.

Just over a week ago, in response to media reports about hundreds of alleged sexual abuse cases involving Southern Baptist Convention leaders and volunteers, SBC President J.D. Greear, suggested the possibility of expelling churches and creating a registry of offenders.

Reacting to the proposed legislation targeting penitential communication, clergy like former Catholic, Rev. Jaime Romo of the Child-Friendly Faith Project believes it is a step in the right direction.

"For too long, religious authorities have been protected from reporting these cases, leaving children vulnerable and unsafe," Romo told the Bee.

Father John Landry of Massachusetts argued in the National Catholic Register however that a priest must protect the seal of confession like the virginity of young Christians "even if he's threatened with imprisonment, torture or death."

"I often ask Catholics with whom I speak about the Sacrament of Penance: Do you realize that every priest is ready to die for you, to protect what you say through him to God? Most, young and old, have never really thought about it. Many priests have in fact died in protecting the seal of Confession," Landry wrote.

"The most famous example is Saint John Nepomuk, confessor to Queen Johanna, wife of Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia, in the late 14th Century. The paranoid king thought his wife was unfaithful to him and demanded that Father John tell him what his wife confessed. He refused. The King escalated the threats of torture. None worked. Finally he ordered that Father John be bound, thrown off the Charles Bridge in Prague, and drowned," he wrote.

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