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.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!