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Seal of Confession under attack? Delaware, Vermont bills draw Catholic criticism

(Image: AS photo studio/Shutterstock)

Denver, Colo., Mar 9, 2023 / 09:30 am (CNA).

Two state legislatures are considering ending any legal protections for a priest who learns about sexual abuse in the confessional. In response, Catholic leaders warned that the laws are unconstitutional, put priests in legal jeopardy, and endanger confidentiality with penitents.

Delaware’s House Bill 74 is among the proposals to end clergy protections in mandatory sexual abuse reporting laws.

“This act abrogates the privilege between priest and penitent in a sacramental confession relating to child abuse and neglect,” says the bill summary on the Delaware General Assembly’s website. “It requires priests to report child abuse and neglect or to give or accept evidence in a judicial proceeding relating to child abuse or neglect.”

The legislation prompted criticism from the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington.

“The sacrament of confession and its seal of confession is a fundamental aspect of the Church’s sacramental theology and practice. It is nonnegotiable,” the Wilmington Diocese said March 6. “No Catholic priest or bishop would ever break the seal of confession under any circumstances.”

“The Diocese of Wilmington considers the protection of the vulnerable to be one of the most important aims of public policy,” the diocese continued. “However, this legislation would not advance that vital objective.”

The requirement would be practically “nearly impossible to meet” for Catholic clergy because almost all sacramental confessions are anonymous.

“It would be a clear violation of the First Amendment for the government to interfere in this most sacred and ancient practice of our faith,” said the diocese, which voiced concerns about infringement on the rights of other faith communities.

Catholic canon law characterizes the seal of sacramental confession as “inviolable.” It says it is “absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.”

Breaking this seal incurs an automatic excommunication that only the pope can pardon, the Wilmington Diocese said. Delaware law already requires priests to be mandatory reporters of suspected abuse, and internal diocese policy requires priests to report suspected child abuse to civil authorities.

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, VT. Courtesy photograph.
Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, VT. Courtesy photograph.

In Vermont, Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 3 to oppose Bill S. 16. The bill would fully eliminate clergy’s protection from the mandatory abuse reporting law if reporting abuse would violate a privilege or disclose confidential communication.

According to Coyne, the legislation “crosses a constitutionally protected element of our religious faith: the right to worship as we see fit.”

“There is no question that protecting children is essential and criminals must be held accountable for their crimes. But disregarding fundamental religious rights is unnecessary,” he said.

The exemption to the current law is “very narrow,” according to Coyne. No office conversations or counseling sessions are privileged. He characterized confession as “a moment of worship in which the penitent seeks God’s mercy.”

Coyne said all clergy and lay employees of the Burlington Diocese are mandatory reporters. Anyone who works for the diocese or diocesan parishes must have a criminal background check and safe environment training to recognize signs of child abuse.

“The priest has a sacred duty to maintain the secrecy of sacramental confession,” he said. “The sacramental seal of confession is the worldwide law of the Catholic Church, not just the diocese. No bishop has the authority to change this.”

“Requiring clergy to report child abuse learned during a penitential communication would infringe upon our First Amendment rights,” said the bishop. “Not just the rights of myself and the clergy but the rights of all of the Catholics in the state of Vermont and the rights of any other faith community that has that kind of a privileged penitential communication.”

From ancient times confessions could not be shared with anyone else even if it was to the advantage of the Church or the priest, according to Coyne.

“Today, the president of the United States could go to confession to a priest and the priest would not have to worry about being subpoenaed by Congress to expose what was said,” Coyne said.

Persons at the confessional do have to be truly penitent and seek to change their lives, the bishop added. Clergy could encourage the penitent to go to the authorities if a crime has been committed, but this is the penitent’s duty.

Other states are considering similar legislation.

In Kansas, State Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, introduced S.B. 87, which would require ordained ministers in the state to report suspected physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and neglect of children. Failure to report would mean a misdemeanor charge.

Though his 2019 bill on the same topic contained an exemption for the penitential privilege, his 2023 legislation does not exempt penitential communications, the Topeka-Capital Journal reported in January.

Chuck Weber, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, told CNA he knows of no plans to have a hearing on the bill.

“The Kansas Catholic Conference has long supported the measure, only with a penitential privilege protection clause,” he said.

Kansas priests are already “trained and complying with the responsibility to report instances of abuse and/or neglect,” Weber said.

Holland told the Topeka-Capital Journal he was concerned the exemption would be “a back door to not reporting” that would discourage law enforcement investigations. Exempting confessions would be “the easy way out.”

“If we have a religious organization where this is a pervasive problem, my concern is that then the exemption becomes basically standard operating procedure where if something happens, run and go confess it, and now when the investigators come it’s like, ‘We don’t know, we’re not obligated to share that information,’” he said.

The Washington state Legislature had two bills concerning mandatory child abuse reporting by clergy. The Senate version, S.B. 5280, preserved the clergy-penitent privilege, while the House of Representative version, H.B. 1098, did not. The Senate unanimously passed its version of the bill on Wednesday and sent it to the House for approval. The House version was technically a viable bill but Wednesday was its last chance to pass the House, Adrienne Joyce, director of policy and communications, told CNA March 8.

Utah proposals to remove exemptions for confessions to clergy failed to advance in the most recent legislative session, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

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  1. It doesnt matter if they pass this law. No priest worth his vows will obey it. How would the state even know such a confession took place in order to enforce the law? It is nothing but a Stalinistic scare tactic. The church needs to tell the state to stuff it, and take them to court to beat back this proposal. This is an insertion of the state into religious practices.Disgusting.

    • You can well imagine that the government will indeed use these laws as clubs. It is not at all impossible that they could find out what was said in confession (even short of illegal spying via listening to cell phones in the pockets of penitents, e.g.). Many child abusers are eventually arrested and put their the wringer. Of their own accord or by inducement by police state prosecutors many may very well drop a dime on priests to whom they have confessed their sins in the past. Is is hard at all to imagine Garland and Wray sedning platoons of stormtroopers into churches to haul Priests out of the confessional or off the alter (to make for a very terrorizing display)? I don’t find that hard to imagine at all.

      • If a person is sent by authorities to record a confession and see the Priests reaction, that is a fishing expedition, not an investigation. That this is a gross intrusion into the most sacred parts of Catholic religious practice is something even an atheist juror could understand. In short these are the sorts of things perpetrated by failed 3rd world countries, by dictatorships like China.Destruction of long practices and protected religious freedom in the US must be resisted. For now, we still have the protection of the Constitution and hopefully enough GOOD and FAIR judges to enforce that reality. ( Note to Dem voters: when the DEMs are in power they appoint hundreds of partisan judges, most of whom do NOT believe in enforcing the law as written, but the law interpreted according to themselves. They have office for LIFE and can indeed make rulings that are not only unfair and unconstitutional but can destroy your personal safety and liberties. Today for example, a judge mandated trans men can compete in weightlifting competitions in womens league competitions.) The church foolishly allowed cooperation and compromise with the state during this recent covid hysteria ( shut downs, limited attendance, bans on singing). That was a grievous error and it will be hard to prevent further state intrusions. Average Catholics must make their feelings about govt intrusion into religious practice known to elected officials in no uncertain terms if and when an incident happens.

        • I didn’t say they sent a person to record a confession, I suggested that the NSA is spying on cell phones that are not in use. Be that as it may, the law enforcement agencies in this country, right up to the highest levels of the DoJ aren’t even a little bit shy about deliberately entrapping people. They also enjoy all manner of games intimidating people they have arrested to induce them to testify, even falsely, against others. If they want “evidence” that priests heard a confession of criminal behavior and didn’t report it, they will get it.

        • I thought CWR prohibited the discussion of politics.

          “partisan judges”? Just look at the current Supreme Court composition that is divided by 6 “conservatives”, several appointed by Trump, and 3 liberals! And, don’t forget that McConnell refused to even interview Merit Garland for a SCOTUS seat.

          “to Dem voters: when the DEMs are in power they appoint hundreds of partisan judges, most of whom do NOT believe in enforcing the law as written, but the law interpreted according to themselves.”
          This toxic!

          Dems? Take all of the criminal acts committed by Trump, and his cohorts and my complicit and silent Republican Congress after the insurrection at our bastion of democracy, the US Capitol. Our political parties are so divided that that dichotomy portrays the self-destruction of our constitution. Our mortal enemies are dancing in the streets. God save our union.

          • “I thought CWR prohibited the discussion of politics.”

            Why would you think that? CWR is not a liberal, secular outlet.

          • Since Garland is totally inept, its a good thing he was never appointed to the Supreme Court. Imagine being stuck with HIM for decades!! The job would clearly be above his head. What we long had in the US were judges who ruled on the law AS WRITTEN. This changed a few years ago when the liberals began appointing partisan judges who “interpreted ” law in light of their own liberal beliefs. They did so because they lacked voters to support these same positions in Congress. Hence, Roe V Wade by court decision, NOT by a vote of elected representatives. There has been in fact plenty of talk about STACKING the court. And guess who is in favor of that?? Yes sir, the left!! All of these political calculations appear to be ok when it favors their side , but not when others who have a different opinion are winning. As for President Trump, he is often accused of “criminal” acts and only hot air and NO PROOF has been behind that. Russia collusion which so distracted his presidency…fake fake fake as PROVEN. But the Dem, as the communists advise, just keep repeating the same lie over and over.( For example, Officer Sicknick NEVER DIED on J6..he died of a stroke 2 days later). Accusations are not facts, although sadly they do as much damage to a person’s reputation.The fruit of democrat rule in two years has been 14 soldiers killed in an inept withdrawal from Afghanistan, involvement in Ukraine for billions of taxpayer dollars. Five MILLION illegals have stolen into the country and have been slowly bankrupting our cities and states. Open borders have also admitted terrorists and drug dealers, resulting in more than 100,000 Americans DEAD from fentanyl: we still have food shortages, and soaring gas prices which senile Joe tried to rig before the election by emptying our strategic oil reserves. ( Not so smart.) We have raging inflation, prohibitive mortgage rates, and a chinese spy balloon allowed to fly over sensitive military areas unchallenged. The Dems deliberately damaged our oil and gas industry, which is a national security danger. Millions of school age American children were permanently damaged educationally and emotionally by an hysterical overreaction to a “pandemic” which in fact was not that overwhelming, and the kids are being sexually groomed at school into perversions as well. You can say what you want about Trump. But like him or not, you cannot deny his POLICIES were far better for the nation than the circus clowns who now inhabit the office, for whom color and sexuality are the only criteria for appointment for office.( I was amused by their guy who dressed as a woman and whose hobby was stealing luggage at the airports. Who NOMINATED that guy and who gave him security clearance??) They are too dim to understand that sex and color should be the LAST “qualifications” considered for public office. NONE of this would have happened under Trump. Or ANY Republican. I agree: God save the country. If there is anything left to save in two years.

  2. 1) Pass this law
    2) A Priest defies it
    3) The cops come to his residence to arrest him – handcuffs and all
    4) Make sure there’s lots of press there

    It should be quite a show

    Even better – pass the law and the Bishop announces ahead of time that he is instructing his Priests to ignore the law and THAT should be quite a show

    Who’s got the stones?

  3. Permit me to state the obvious – this is a DIRECT attack on one of the most sacred rules of our faith – the sanctity of the confessional. NO MATTER WHAT.

    Violating the sanctity of the confessional is a transgression so egregious that it can only be forgiven by the Pope.

    This is evil.

  4. With many priests committing pedophilia on the innocent, what could evolve if the confessional priest is the perpetrator?

    “Clergy could encourage the penitent to go to the authorities if a crime has been committed, but this is the penitent’s duty.”
    A false bail out. They, in the most part, are repeat criminals!

    “The requirement would be practically “NEARLY impossible to meet” for Catholic clergy because almost all sacramental confessions are anonymous.”
    Somewhat incorrect when we now practice OPEN CONFESSIONS.

    Civil law must honor… “Of the people, by the people, for the people”.

    • Starting from the premise that a priest MIGHT be an abuser, then expecting the State to handle these things with care and ethical precision, and then tossing out the Church’s rights…sounds great! What could go wrong? Good grief.

    • Morgan,
      I don’t believe “many” priests committed acts of pedophilia in the first place. True pedophilia is an attraction to pre-pubescent children & that’s a fairly rare thing, thankfully. The only real pedophile I’ve ever known was a married man with children. He’s now serving what hopefully will be a life sentence.

      The much larger issue concerns sexual predators & opportunists who prey on teens & young people simply because they’re vulnerable, available, & an easier target than adults. That happens in every sort of institution where adults have access to minors.

      And I’m repeating this, but per law enforcement, the most dangerous place for a child is not in a church or a school but, in a home where a single mom allows unrelated men access.

  5. Good people of CWR, do yourselves a favor instead of speculating and often wrongly about the clergy sexual abuse issue by picking up a copy of Bill Donohue’s scholarly “The Truth About Clergy Sexual Abuse” published in 2021 by Ignatius Press. (Current price around $17.00)

    Regarding the seal of confession issue, it is good to see some bishops publicly standing up for this, and I hope and pray that all will stand fast, but the USCCB is not exactly inspiring confidence these days as brave defenders of Catholic Truth in the public square.

    Though it took him a bit too long to finally act, Archbishop Cordileone did the right thing by refusing Holy Communion to Nancy Pelosi until/unless she properly repents and acts in accordance with Catholic teaching, and yet he only received some public support from a few of his fellow bishops while the vast majority of them continue to allow the abuse of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament by not universally banning all Catholic politicians from Holy Communion who have repeatedly supported abortion and/or laws that do the same thing.

    Catholic teaching on the sin of active homosexuality has been clear as a bell since the beginning of the Church, yet how many bishops in the world are now calling these teachings into question? As such, would it really surprise anyone to hear about one or more bishops beginning to waver on the seal of confession? I sure hope not, but one bishop I am not going to ask is Cardinal Hollerich, and bishops from Germany will also not be sought out for their “learned” opinions.

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