Three Wisconsin lawmakers take aim at the confessional

Bill proposed by a trio of Democrat state lawmakers would mandate priests violate the seal of confession in child sex-abuse cases.

Wisconsin State Capitol building in 2013 photo. (Vijay Kumar Koulampet/Wikipedia)

MADISON, Wis. — Catholic priests would be required to report suspected child abuse or the sexual abuse of a minor based on information heard during the Sacrament of Penance under legislation proposed August 7th by a trio of Democrat state lawmakers.

Legislation introduced by Reps. Chris Taylor and Melissa Sargent of Madison, and Sen. Lena Taylor of Milwaukee, would eliminate protection that exists in state law for information priests hear solely “in a confessional setting” or that they or other clergy hear “solely through confidential communications.” Priests and other clergy are otherwise mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse under state law.

“It is time clergy become mandatory reporters of child abuse, including the sexual abuse of children, with no exceptions, no excuses,” Taylor said at a news conference at the Wisconsin State Capitol. She said the proposed Clergy Mandatory Reporter Act “ends this big loophole which has allowed the sexual abuse of children to be covered up, be perpetuated, to be not reported.”

A companion bill introduced Wednesday, the Child Victims Act, would eliminate the statute of limitations in civil law for victims of child sexual abuse. Currently, Wisconsin law allows victim-survivors to file civil lawsuits against their alleged abusers up through age 35. The proposal would remove that limit and give all victim-survivors a three-year window in which to file such litigation, no matter their age.

Kim Vercauteren, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, said she had not yet read the proposed language in the bills, but she expects the bishops will oppose both proposals. She said the bill requiring priests to violate the seal of confession is of deep concern. “I do think it’s one of those things that we need to take seriously,” Vercauteren said. The Wisconsin Catholic Conference is the public policy arm of the state’s five Catholic dioceses, which include 1.2 million Wisconsin Catholics in 715 parishes. The state also has 277 Catholic schools and 38 Catholic hospitals.

Vercauteren said she previously communicated with Rep. Taylor about the bill. “We had conversations with her,” Vercauteren said. “The conversations were about editing the language around the seal of the confessional exemption, not doing away with it entirely. I believe that’s what her bill does, although I have not seen the language.”

The Church’s Code of Canon Law, Canon 983 §1, says the seal of the Sacrament of Penance “is inviolable” and it is “absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” A priest who intentionally violates the seal incurs automatic excommunication. Under Canon 983 §2, an interpreter “and all others who in any way have knowledge of sins from confession are also obliged to observe secrecy.”

Vercauteren said the inviolability of the confessional is a “core tenet of our faith” that the bishops believe is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She said Rep. Taylor “is aware of the seriousness with which we take it.”

Rep. Taylor said current state law “allows the sexual abuse of children to continue on and on, in secret and in the shadows. This must stop.”

A similar proposal in California was withdrawn in July 2019 when the sponsor could not find enough committee support to advance it. State Sen. Jerry Hill said the bill was necessary because “the clergy-penitent privilege has been abused on a large scale, resulting in underreported and systemic abuse of thousands of children across multiple denominations and faith.” The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said it asked Hill to provide data backing up his claim, but received no reply.

“The idea of having the government police the details of a Catholic sacrament is draconian,” Catholic League President Bill Donohue said in July. “Furthermore, it would forever place in jeopardy the religious liberty protections afforded by the First Amendment. It would also do irreparable damage to the priest-penitent relationship, compromising, as it would, the confidentiality of the confessional.”

Vercauteren said the Wisconsin Catholic Conference supported Wisconsin Act 207 — 2003 legislation that requires clergy to report other clergy members they suspect of child abuse or sexual abuse of a minor to law enforcement, based on firsthand observation or information from another person. “They actually have a little bit more of an onus when it comes to another member of the clergy,” Vercauteren said. Clergy are otherwise required to report possible sexual abuse or other child abuse against any “child seen by the member of the clergy in the course of his or her professional duties,” according to Chapter 48 of the Wisconsin statutes.

The 2003 act extended the statute of limitations for both civil and criminal law regarding sexual abuse of minors, Vercauteren said. It made clergy mandatory reporters of abuse, and allowed victims to seek civil relief against the employer of a clergy member who commits sexual or other abuse of minors. “We supported that legislation,” she said.

“Obviously we want to do what we can to help victim-survivors or anyone who may fall victim or prey to sexual abuse, to do what we can to protect them,” Vercauteren said. “There are better measures that we can be doing out there.”

Vercauteren said Catholic and other private schools that participate in Wisconsin’s school-choice program are required to have all staff undergo criminal background checks. “No similar requirement exists or state statute exists for public schools,” she said. “We could broaden the number of people for whom we require criminal background checks.” Wisconsin’s school choice program allows some 30,000 public school students to attend any of 200 participating private schools using public dollars.

Sen. Lena Taylor, main sponsor of the proposed Child Victims Act, said statute-of-limitation restrictions have been a barrier to victim-survivors seeking justice in court. “Statutes of limitation — on raping children?” she asked.

“We know that sometimes it can take 30-40 years to come to terms with sexual abuse,” said Sen. Taylor, who told attendees she was raped as a child. “By the time survivors overcome the countless obstacles on their path to recovery, they often find it’s too late to take any legal recourse, to hold their predators, their abusers responsible.”

Sen. Taylor said removing the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits “would give survivors a chance to fight back, to have justice; a chance to move forward.”

Laurie Asplund, a Madison psychotherapist who treats survivors of sexual abuse, said “we shouldn’t be restricted by law when we as victims are finally ready emotionally to tell our story and seek justice.” Asplund said she was sexually abused by a Christian youth pastor.

Asplund blamed the Catholic Church and Wisconsin Family Action for stymying and thwarting previous attempts to pass the statute of limitations reform. She said the Church and WFA “don’t want these bills to see the light of day because of the fear of being sued if a sexual predator is found in their midst.”

Vercauteren said the problem with dropping statutes of limitation on civil suits is it holds the Catholic Church, faith-based schools and other nonprofit organizations to a more stringent standard than public schools. “Public entities have sovereign immunity in Wisconsin,” she said.

The Wisconsin Legislature is controlled by Republicans by a 19-14 margin in the Senate and a 63-36 margin in the Assembly. Gov. Tony Evers is a Democrat.

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About Joseph M. Hanneman 101 Articles
Joseph M. Hanneman writes from Madison, Wisconsin.


  1. ““We know that sometimes it can take 30-40 years to come to terms with sexual abuse,” said Sen. Taylor, who told attendees she was raped as a child. “By the time survivors overcome the countless obstacles on their path to recovery, they often find it’s too late to take any legal recourse, to hold their predators, their abusers responsible.””

    It is terrible that such a thing happened to her, or to anyone. But after 20, 30, however many years, how much evidence remains? How can a proper investigation be done? One is left with the feeling that by that time it will simply be a matter of “accused, and therefore guilty.” That’s not justice. There is a reason for statutes of limitations.

  2. “It is terrible that such a thing happened to her, or to anyone. But after 20, 30, however many years, how much evidence remains? How can a proper investigation be done?”


    It’s a fair question, but we had a case in our former parish that took 20 plus years to properly investigate & finally convict a terrible pedophile who’d victimized several young children. Unfortunately, covering up for one’s peers isn’t limited just to the Catholic hierarchy & it can hold up a case until those involved retire or die.
    Justice can be done, even after decades. Especially when there are multiple victims & others who can corroborate the evidence. Praise God .
    Of course the seal of Confession’s a whole ‘nother thing & is off bounds as part of our religious freedom.

      • Ramjet, I have no idea. The pedophile at our parish was very much alive and is now incarcerated -hopefully for the rest of his life.
        I do hear you regarding cases where the accused has been long deceased and in the current climate, they are automatically presumed guilty. I wonder about some of those too.

  3. I think the legislators need to first pass a law that would require that they report child abuse [or any other sex abuse] as soon as they obtain knowledge of it. This would be interesting.

    What makes me think this companion bill will never see the light of day.

  4. As a life long Catholic, I’ve watched the practice of confession change greatly just in my lifetime. Given the pattern of priestly sexual abuse of Catholic minors and the widespread practice by priests and Curia in hiding those moral depravities, I have to wonder why elected officials have taken so long to act? The sanctity of confession, like the sanctity of marriage, is not absolute or unchanging. We now see Curia approving annulments of marriage on an expansive list of practical reasons, it seems to me a similar modification for Confession is no less appropriate or practical. Surely to allow sexual abusers or those who cover up the crime continued freedom is a moral injustice. I wonder what took legislators this long to propose it?

    • The sanctity of marriage is absolute and unchanging. If you have been taught otherwise, you have been poorly catechized. If you are speaking as a Catholic and teaching others that the sanctity of marriage is not absolute and unchanging, you are spreading heresy. The efficacy, holiness, and perfection of the Sacraments is absolute and unchanging.

    • Wrong: “The sanctity of confession, like the sanctity of marriage, is not absolute or unchanging.”. As for your argument about annulmnents, you show you have no idea of what they are and the argument is fallacious. An annulment is the result of a judicial procedure which shows that there was no marriage. This has nothing to do with the seal of confession. By the way, what degrees do you have in Theology and Canon Law, because you seem to dictate what the Church should do and not do. Also, do you really think that the vast majority of priests will betray their penitents and break the seal? I am a priest and like many or most other priests, I would go to jail any day rather than break the seal. So, what use is such a law, other than being a cheap shot at the Catholic Church?

  5. Matt Edwards ,
    Nothing has changed regarding sacramental marriage. The Church has to take her cue from Christ who spelled it out very clearly in Scripture.

  6. I would like a priest to answer this. If a child molester, or rapist, or murderer confessed his crime to you, would you tell him to confess to the police before he could receive absolution?

    • If you were a lawyer or counsellor and a guilty client came to you for help with his/her problem, would you tell the person to first inform the police and then come back to you?

      • We report child abuse without making the person go away. You keep working with them. Part of the point of mandatory reporting is that history shows people lack objectivity, even professionals, when dealing with matters of public safety. So the case is sent to an objective outside resource to evaluate. In the meanwhile, you continue to offer pastoral and counseling support to the person. Mandatory reporting does not apply to other crimes

    • NO. THAT IS NOT ALLOWED FOR VERY GOOD REASONS. The Sacraments are actions of Christ and the priest is only a representative of Christ. In fact, he doesn’t know anything regarding what the penitent told him in the confessional outside of it. That is not knowledge he has or can dispose of. Besides, modern States have huge powers at their disposal in prosecution of crimes. The Church as the Body and the Bride of Christ is about achieving eternal salvation, not about law enforcement. The priest could suggest to the penitent that he report his action to authorities, but he cannot make this a condition of absolution.He has to judge whether the penitent is repentent or not and impose an appropriate penance. I suggest that you study the matter before you come to a forum like this and make the kind of suggestion that you do. The Church and its laws, based on divine revelation has been around for 2000 years and such laws are the result of 2000 years of wisdom with the help of the Holy Spirit.The American Republic is around only a couple of hundred years. I am not saying they are infallible, but the one on the seal of confession cannot be changed due to the fact that that would certainly jepordize the salvation many sinners who would to go to confession due fear of the priest betraying the trust placed in him as Christ’s minister. After all, what did Jesus come to this world for but the eternal salvation of all of us? He didn’t come to be an arm of the human justice system, nor did he found his Church for that purpose.

  7. As a practicing Catholic who has been frequenting the beautiful Sacrament of Confession for more than 50 years now, I am deeply pained by this proposed legislation. A person may feel truly sorry for one’s misdeed (even after many years, say after a religious conversion) and come to seek reconciliation before God, and the priest grants forgiveness in God’s name. If he wanted the civil authorities to know about it, why should s/he come to a priest, through whom the authorities come to know? Don’t doctors, lawyers, counsellors, etc. too have professional secrets which they are bound to maintain?

    • Coming clean includes accepting the consequences of one’s actions. Without the willingness to do that, is the confession really sincere?

  8. 1) Pass the law,
    2) A Priest refuses to obey it and his Bishop backs him up.
    3) The Priest and/or his Bishop are thrown in jail for their action, the press has a field day, etc.
    4) What’s next?

  9. “Bill[to]mandate priests violate the seal of confession in child sex-abuse cases.”

    To me — a Presbyterian — this looks like one more effort to force government, the state, into primacy with respect to religious practice. The concept of separation of church and state, never meant to be part of the Constitution, only matters to some politicians when it allows ‘the state’ to muscle in on First Amendment freedom. Confining this new effort to questions of child sex abuse muddies the water sufficiently to make one’s conscience the enemy of one’s faith convictions. If a bill such as this becomes law, I see two possible results. First, far fewer confessions of such abuse will come to the attention of those who might offer help; second, priests who refuse to violate the confessional and render to Caesar will face official slings and arrows up to and including incarceration. It’s hard to see this as anything more than another assault on the faith of our Fathers.

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