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Critics: Utah bill on confession would criminalize priests, not counter sex abuse

By Kevin J. Jones

(Image: Josh Applegate |

Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan 16, 2020 / 03:01 pm (CNA).- A Utah legislator’s proposal to remove protections for priests and other clergy who hear confessions of the sexual abuse of minors has drawn significant criticism from Catholics and other commentators.

“The motivation for the bill is understandable, to uncover and stop the abuse of children, but H.B. 90 will not have this intended effect,” said Jean Hill, director of the Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Peace and Justice Commission.

Removing the clergy exemption would be “making it a crime for the priest to maintain the Seal of Confession,” Hill said in a column for the Jan. 17, 2020 edition of the Intermountain Catholic, the diocesan newspaper. The proposal “could permanently destroy the relationship between our priests and ourselves in the confessional, without furthering the stated goal of the legislation.”

The proposed legislation “places a Catholic priest in the untenable position of violating state law and facing criminal penalties, or violating canon law and facing excommunication,” Hill added.

“For a Catholic priest, revealing the contents of a person’s confession is a mortal sin and grounds for automatic excommunication,” she said. “In the past, priests have been tortured and given their lives rather than break their solemn vow to protect the Seal of Confession. This isn’t just a convenient means of maintaining confidentiality, it is a sacred duty and thus critical to the free exercise of our religion.”

Under Utah law, certain professionals must report allegations of child abuse to authorities. These professionals include clergy, teachers, medical professionals, and law enforcement. At present state law exempts clergy if a perpetrator confesses directly to a religious leader and cannot report “without the consent of the individual making the confession.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, was raised Catholic. She said she “understands our sacraments and it’s not my intent to go against them,” the Deseret News reports. She said her bill doesn’t target any religion specifically.

“This isn’t about the Catholic Church,” she said. “This is about religious institutions ensuring that people aren’t hiding under the guise of confession to get away with hurting children… Because the trauma they experience from sexual assault doesn’t just impact them, it impacts the entire community, it impacts our families. For me, that’s more important than protecting a perpetrator who will likely hurt other children.”

The legislation could affect the confidentiality of confessions to clergy in the predominant religious group in Utah, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, informally known as Mormons. The Mormon church, whose global headquarters is in Salt Lake City, has not taken a position on the legislation, the Deseret News reports. It has faced criticisms and lawsuits for various leaders’ handling of sexual abuse of minors.

A woman in Oregon is suing the Mormon church for more than $10 million, after her husband was arrested for child sex abuse. He had confessed to his bishop, following the religion’s doctrine, and believed the converation to be confidential. The clergyman reported the acts to law enforcement. The lawsuit claims the religion violated a privileged conversation between clergy and a member of the community.

Hill noted that Catholics are not alone “in viewing the private disclosure of wrongdoing as a path to God.” She cited the Orthodox Churches’ use of the sacrament of confession, and wrote that the Church of England also “recognizes the inviolability of an act of confession.”

She added that the Mormon church “views confidential admissions of wrongdoing as an essential part of the repentance process,” and that the Presbyterian Church USA and Baptist and Lutheran ecclesial communities “all recognize the pastoral imperative of confidentiality when congregants seek counseling and care from their spiritual leaders.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, does not support the bill.

“I have serious concerns about this bill and the effects it could have on religious leaders as well as their ability to counsel members of their congregation,” he said in an email to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. “I do not support this bill in its current form, and unless significant changes are made to ensure the protection of religious liberties, I will be voting against this bill.”

Wilson had received hundreds of emails critical of the bill. CNA sought comment from Wilson but legislative staff said he had nothing to add at present.

The House Speaker’s opposition to the bill could prevent it from a committee hearing. Romero said she looked forward to discussing the bill with the speaker.

“I’m hoping my colleagues will give this bill a fair hearing and they understand why this is an important piece of policy,” Romero said. “I hope we can follow the lead of other states who have placed the best interests of children over religious institutions.”

Several groups are calling for an end to the exemption, including the Truth and Transparency Foundation, which runs the controversial site MormonLeaks. The site publishes internal LDS documents relating to budgets, international relations and responses to sex abuse, among other topics.

The group said the exemption is “an affront to the safety and well-being of abuse survivors” that “provides an environment where predators are enabled,” it said in a November 2018 email to state legislators.

Sam Young, a former LDS bishop who founded the group Protect Every Child, is also in favor of eliminating the exemption.

Young, who lives in Texas, was excommunicated from the religion after he advocated for an end to the practice of leaders having one-on-one interviews with children that sometimes included sexually explicit questions, the Salt Lake Tribune reports.

Mandatory reporting exemptions for clergy have been removed by North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia, the Deseret News reports. A California proposal to remove these exemptions was pulled from consideration.

Eric Kniffin, a Colorado lawyer and First Amendment attorney who followed the bill in California, told the Salt Lake Tribune that such proposals to remove clergy exemptions would “damage religious liberties.” He cited the Catholic prohibition on clergy revealing anything said in confession on pain of excommunication.

In Kniffin’s view, protecting clergy exemptions may provide greater benefits in the effort to address sexual abuse.

“The confessional is not just a black hole,” he said. “If a priest hears something in confession, they may urge the person to get help, talk to police or say ‘talk to me outside of the confessional’.”

Like Kniffin, Hill suggested removing legal protections for clergy would be counter-productive.

“There is no evidence that forcing priests to disclose cases of abuse learned of in the confessional would have prevented a single case of child abuse,” she said in her Intermountain Catholic column. “On the other hand, there is every reason to believe the elimination of the privilege would mean that perpetrators would simply not bring it to confession.”

The knowledge that confession is “a sacred conversation with God” would encourage Catholics to seek to make amends to both society and their victims. A priest who hears a criminal’s confession can encourage the penitent to self-report to law enforcement or to seek counseling, or can offer to accompany him or her to report their crime.

“H.B. 90 is a bad law that does nothing to protect children and undermines the very real possibility that a sex offender might repent,” she said.

While legislative counsel that reviewed Romero’s bill said it did not violate any religious freedom, Hill invoked the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision Trammel v. United States, which cited the longstanding precedent of protecting confessions to clergy in its ruling on whether spouses enjoy privileges to refuse to testify against a spouse.

“The priest-penitent privilege recognizes the human need to disclose to a spiritual counselor, in total and absolute confidence, what are believed to be flawed acts or thoughts and to receive priestly consolation and guidance in return,” that decision said.

Hill told the Deseret News that the bill is “trying to regulate a sacrament of our religion in a way that we believe violates our free exercise rights.”

The Apostolic Penitentiary reaffirmed the inviolability of the seal of confession in a July 1, 2019 note signed by its head, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza.

“Should the trust in the seal fail, the faithful would be discouraged from accessing the sacrament of Reconciliation, and this, obviously, with serious harm to souls,” Piacenza wrote. Defending this seal, he added, “can never constitute some form of connivance with evil,” but represents “the only true antidote to evil that threatens man and the whole world.”

Some court rulings have indicated that legal protections apply not only to religious groups with a formal confession rite.

Earlier this month, the Montana Supreme Court overturned a $35 million sex abuse judgement against the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the grounds that a lower court wrongly ruled that the elders involved in hearing abuse allegations did not enjoy religious confidentiality protections guaranteed by state law.

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  1. She understands our Sacraments and “it’s not my intent to go against them.”

    The seal of the confessional goes back 2000 years in the Catholic Church – it is arguably the most sacred of our rules. Yet this woman, who says she is a ‘catholic’ (small c) says it is not her intent to go after it, IOW negate it.

    Somebody is lying.

    If this passes NO Priest worthy to be called a Priest will obey it. I look forward to the day when the first Priest, accompanied by his Bishop – both in handcuffs with officers of the law by their sides – is led off to the hoosegow.

    If Rep. Romero is a practicing Catholic, will she feel safe going to confession, knowing that the Priest is no longer bound to the seal of the confessional, because SHE has helped break it?

    This ‘law’ is just the beginning.

  2. There is nothing benevolent in the proposed legislation. It is merely another thinly veiled attack on religion and should be seen as such. It is, as with most such attacks, aimed primarily at the Catholic Church, because that Church has in the past been the primary bulwark against atheism and secular humanism (which are a slippery slope to totalitarianism).

  3. This is terrible and every Catholic in the state of Utah should and must write their representative advise them so. Rep. Romero says she was raised Catholic and “understands our sacraments and it’s not my intent to go against them”. If she truly understands the sacraments she would not have introduced the bill, in its present form in the first place. She very well knows the impact of such a bill on other states. There are certainly other means to accomplish her purpose other than putting our priest at such a risk. People of Utah, in the name of God, please write your representative! Please!

  4. “The motivation for the bill is understandable…” No it isn’t, but the motive is. To “move” a bill like this through the legislature (concerning Catholics) is an exercise in futility and tyranny, because respectively it will be completely ignored by priests and result in purposeful oppression. If the sponsor of this bill was raised Catholic then she should have learned the difference between confession and confidentiality and between sacramental confession and legal confession. The word “confession” might be used each time but the equivocation is great and the meanings miles apart.

  5. Religious doctrine vs civic duty?. And, never the twain shall meet!

    With all that is going in my former church how can the hierarchy maintain that, even though a sacrament, all rapists of young children are exempt from civil adjudication. How does a sacrament defy a valid human protection law to allow a criminal to exit from a confessional only to repeat the crime. Now, that must be a sin by the cleric! He becomes complicit in the cover up. Then there is the evil of the statute of limitations. No matter the lifelong physical and mental impact to the innocent child, the statue indicated that the injured person MUST issue a complaint before the age of thirty. What Judge set that age? He must be over 30!

    No more confidential cover ups and no more “high crime” limitations.

    • “my former church”

      Well, well, well. After pretending to be Catholic but with some questions for quite some time, you’re now finally admitting you’ve apostatized.

      “With all that is going in my former church how can the hierarchy maintain that, even though a sacrament, all rapists of young children are exempt from civil adjudication.”

      You are clueless. Nobody is saying that “all rapists of young children are exempt from civil adjudication.” The Church is simply saying that the seal of the confessional holds for absolutely every single thing said in confession, as it always has.

      “How does a sacrament defy a valid human protection law to allow a criminal to exit from a confessional only to repeat the crime.”

      People intending to repeat crimes seldom bother to go to confession, not that that’s particularly relevant.

      Many – most, probably – confessions are anonymous. Is your next idea going to be, “Well, the priest should have to leap out of the confessional, grab the person, and wait for the police to arrive!!!!”

      “Now, that must be a sin by the cleric! He becomes complicit in the cover up.”

      Next, you’re going to be blaming God of being complicit because He knows what has happened, and it is to Him that people confess their sins through a priest. No, it is not a sin by the priest.

      “Then there is the evil of the statute of limitations. No matter the lifelong physical and mental impact to the innocent child, the statue indicated that the injured person MUST issue a complaint before the age of thirty. What Judge set that age? He must be over 30!”

      Statutes of limitations are a matter of justice. If someone comes along and accuses you of harming him 30 or 40 years ago, how exactly do you think it can be investigated? What physical evidence is there? What about memories of witnesses, if there were any? Are we to presume that, because you were accused, you must be guilty even though at that point there is no evidence? The requirement to issue a complaint by age 30 is quite reasonable; it gives a victim 12 years as an adult to bring a case.

      “No more confidential cover ups and no more “high crime” limitations.”

      There should never have been any cover-ups. There should also not be any blame cast against bishops who, decades ago, followed the advice of psychologists regarding the treatment of pedophiles, though that advice is now considered wrong.

    • “Religious doctrine and civil duty” First of all you are making a false comparison – you should have written here “civil law” or compared civil duty to religious duty. It is as if you have already shown your predisposition by not acknowledging a religious duty. No one is saying here that a cleric should not come forward with information he has (or suspects about a crime of sexual abuse or any crime); only that he should have protection under the law to be a priest (a sacred duty which of course a secularist government will be at odds with) and hear the confession of another person as if that person were confessing it from his very heart – in silence – to God (which is what he is exactly doing). The priest is as one who has ears only so as he can lend them to the Lord as a vessel of the confession. The priest also has a voice for counseling and absolving and for giving a penance (including the counsel to turn oneself in to the civil authorities). His voice is not for reporting anymore than God’s voice is for telling everyone about your innermost thoughts and sins. Confession is about high sins not high crimes which is the job of the State which should never violate the Church simply because it becomes frustrated with its task. As to reporting abuse, the Church has already set up an exemplary system for priests and laymen to perform their civic duty to report what they observe.

  6. The crazy broad promoting this bill is no “Catholic”, no matter what she says.This is an attack on religion, pure and simple.She should be barred from Communion for suggesting this. The sacrament of Confession has stood as a catholic doctrine for more than 2000 years, which includes the prohibition of the Priest EVER repeating the information. NO priest will break the seal, no matter WHAT the law says. First, nobody but the priest and the penitent would know about this, so who would be telling the cops?? This is a cheap publicity stunt, enacted in a state which is heavily Mormon,but it sure is aimed at Catholics. The Mormon “bishop” who reported the penitent should be barred from his church.What a betrayal. There are an awful lot of crimes out there that are terrible and destroy lives. But attacking religious practices is not the way to resolve them or make the victims “feel better”. The fact that MANY people have been arrested and prosecuted for these sex abuse crimes should be proof this law is not necessary.

    • All someone would have to do to set up a priest would be to bring along a recording device. This is more about tearing down the Church than enabling justice.
      And seriously, if a perpetrator knew that a priest was required to report molestation, why would he reveal his crimes in Confession in the first place?

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