Terry McLaughlin: Despite good intention, state bill infringes on religious liberty
While visiting the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. last month, I came across a stirring image of San Juan Nepomuceno, painted in oil on canvas around 1798 by Puerto Rican artist Jose Campeche.
For those of the Catholic faith, San Juan Nepomuceno is considered the Patron Saint of Confessors. He was martyred for refusing to divulge what he heard in the confessional, and this painting was intended as a reminder to priests and their congregants of the seal of the confessional, which requires both to hold their confessions in strict confidence.
The seal of confession is one of the most sacrosanct of Catholic beliefs. Penitents rely on this unbreakable guarantee of confidentiality to freely confess and seek reconciliation with God. The sanctity of the confessional is unquestionable and it is central to the Catholic faith and the constitutional right to the free expression of religion.
In spite of protests that new legislation would be an infringement upon religious liberty, in May California’s State Senators voted to approve a law that would require Catholic priests to violate this seal of confession. Senate Bill 360 was introduced by State Senator Jerry Hill (D-CA 13) in response to the credible cases of child abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy. As originally written, SB 360 would have mandated that priests report any knowledge or suspicion of child abuse revealed by any penitent. The bill was later amended to state that reporting would be required if possible child abuse were divulged in “a penitential communication between a clergy member and another person that is employed at the same site or facility as the clergy member” and “a penitential communication between a clergy member and another clergy member.” Senate Bill 360 passed by an overwhelming majority, and will now be taken up by the State Assembly.
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The Catholic Church is rightly taking heat for keeping the secrets of abusers for years, and Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto admits that “There is no doubt that the credibility of clergy has been put under a cloud” which has helped create “the environment of suspicion we are living in now.” But allowing the government to be in the position of defining religious freedom takes citizens of all religious denominations down a very dangerous path.
All clergy are already mandatory reporters under California’s Child Abuse Neglect and Reporting Act, as are teachers, medical workers, peace officers, social workers, and many other professionals who learn of potential abuse during the regular course of their administrative duties. Andy Rivas, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, issued a statement stating “While the California Catholic Conference shares the desire to combat the scourge of sexual abuse of minors and is committed to strengthening mandatory reporting requirements, interjecting the government into the confessional is not going to accomplish that objective and could undermine the guarantee of confidentiality all of us depend upon.”
Most abusers are secretive and deceptive, and would not likely seek spiritual reconciliation, but rather would go to great lengths to conceal their crimes. If an abuser did profess remorse and seek repentance through the sacrament of confession, it should be noted for those unfamiliar with the process that most confessions are anonymous, with the priest and penitent separated by a door or a screen. Strong child protection measures should not require the violation of the sanctity of this sacrament, and despite the volume of investigations into clerical sexual abuse, no data exists establishing or indicating the use of sacramental confession either to facilitate or perpetuate the sexual abuse of minors.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives.” Canon law describes the seal of the confessional as “inviolable” and priests are “absolutely forbidden” to disclose the sins of a penitent “in any way, for any reason.”
SB 360 is “an unacceptable intrusion by government into a sacred sacrament of the Catholic Church”, said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Donohue described SB 360 as a “frontal assault on religious freedom” and called on “California’s government to strengthen mandatory reporting requirements while respecting the sanctity of penitential communications.”
Despite its good intentions, Senate Bill 360 crosses the line separating church and state, and is undeniably an incursion by government into the protected religious freedoms of the Catholic faith. It could open the door to the violation of other confidential communications, such as those between attorney and client or doctor and patient.
Violation of the seal of confession is considered a grave crime against the faith and is punished by an automatic excommunication. Donohue predicted that, even if passed, the legislation will be unenforceable because “No priest is going to respect it and violate the sanctity of the confessional.” If forced to choose between state law and canon law, you can be certain that priests will choose to go to jail, rather than suffer excommunication for failing to uphold canon law.
The confidential nature of this sacrament is so inviolable that at least four priests, including San Juan Nepomuceno, chose death rather than violate that sacred seal.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at email@example.com.
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