California state lawmakers are introducing a bill that would strip priests of their legal protection for the Catholic Church‘s sacrament of confession when it comes to child sexual abuse.
The “Removing Clergy Exemption from Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting” bill, introduced Wednesday by Democratic State Sen. Jerry Hill, removes an exemption in the state’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.
Priests are just one category of professionals required by state law to notify law enforcement about suspected abuse, but unlike teachers and therapists, clergy members have an exception if they learn about the suspected abuse during 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. “The exemption for clergy only protects the abuser and places children at further risk.”
This comes as Catholic bishops from around the world are meeting at the Vatican in an effort to put an end to the problem of clergy sexual abuse.
The Golden State will be debating the right to private penance versus a desire to protect children, as both sides make their moral arguments.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has announced an investigation into clergy sex abuse, calling for victims to come forward.
The California Catholic Conference came out against the proposed legislation.
“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, told the Los Angeles Times.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, the seal of confession is considered sacred and “any priest who directly betrays a penitent would incur an immediate and automatic excommunication.”
Father John Landry of Massachusetts, who said a priest must honor the seal of confession “even if he’s threatened with imprisonment, torture or death,” decried the international effort.
California is the latest in a growing number of states to mandate that priests report child sexual abuse to law enforcement, no matter how they learn of it. Connecticut, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia all have similar statutes in place.
“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,” Landry wrote in the National Catholic Register, “so still today some leaders and governments try to break priests’ fidelity by forcing them to violate the confessional seal.”