The State Senate of California recently passed a Project of law (Senate Bill or SB360), authored by Democrat Jerry Hill which attacks the seal of the confessional. It is being held before the Assembly and could be voted in. This bill would be the first case of US legislation meddling with the seal of the confessional.
In US laws, priests among many other counselors would be considered “mandatory reporters” meaning that they have the duty to report knowledge or suspicion of child abuse or neglect. Up to this point “knowledge obtained during a penitential communication” was excepted.
This is no longer the case. Hill's bill focuses only on confessions involving priests and church employees, thus capturing the growing disgust against priests guilty of child abuse relentlessly hammered by the media.
Needless to say, the Senate green light on the bill has received a vehement rebuttal from Church authorities. Los Angeles Archbishop Joseph Gomez explained that SB 360’s sponsor makes a sweeping claim 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.” However, not one case was brought as evidence that such crime would have been prevented if a priest had broken the seal of the confessional. This is because predators are known to be secretive about their doings and they will not confess their crimes to priests.
The Archbishop wants answers as to why the bill targets only Catholic priests and, especially, priests hearing confessions. “It is far more likely that journalists and lawyers would hear admissions about such crimes. Yet, this bill does not propose doing away with the attorney-client privilege or the protection of journalists' sources.” Without incriminating these two groups, it is clear that the Archbishop feels that the bill has nothing to do with child protection and everything to do with paralyzing the Church from its most powerful tools of salvation: the Catholic priesthood and the sacrament of confession.
The auxiliary bishop of Archbishop Gomez, Bishop Barron, brings out the awkward position which priests would soon face because “he would be threatened with prosecution and possible imprisonment on the one hand or of formal exclusion from the body of Christ (by excommunication) on the other.” Added to this, it would be child's play for troublemakers to use the legislation in order to track down targeted priests.
And would not SB 360 be the start of a slippery slope? If child abuse needs be reported, why not other terrible crimes like murder, domestic abuse and rape?
It has been a long time since the secular government, both in the federal and the California State level, has endeavored to determine doctrine in Catholic schools (sex education, gender identity…) and practice in Catholic hospitals (abortion, birth control…), which are contrary to divine and Church law.
But with this new bill, it is the sacrament as Our Lord Himself has instituted it which is under attack. Not only is the Catholic Church not influencing the public life of the country, if this law were to pass, we would be witnessing the State adopting a power that belongs only to God. It is the State which is meddling in religious matters, and so, throwing away the 1st amendment of the American Constitution which states: “The Congress may not make any law that has for an object the establishment of a religion or which forbids its free exercise.”