A new bill in California seeks to intrude on one of the most sacred relationships—that between clergy and penitent in formal confession. Currently, clergy members are already mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect, but sins confessed specifically in confession are exempt under current law from mandatory reporting.
Bill 360, introduced by Democrat state Sen. Jerry Hill, would “delete that exception for a penitential communication, thereby requiring clergy to make a mandated report even if they acquired the knowledge or reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect during a penitential communication.” This is an egregious overreach of secular authority, stepping into sacred religious rites, and will not protect children or stem the tide of child abuse.
It’s not hard to understand the climate spawning this bill. Constant scandals of sexual abuse within churches, internally investigated and covered up, sometimes for decades, have left a bad taste in the mouths of many. Yet this is an overreaction—a pendulum swing too far—and will only hurt more people.
Upon ordination, clergy members take vows to not disclose the sins they hear during confession, and violating that oath has strong moral repercussions. For Catholic priests, “any priest who directly betrays a penitent would incur an immediate and automatic excommunication.” In the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, the ordination vows read in part: “Will you forgive the sins of those who repent, and will you promise never to divulge the sins confessed to you?”
Likewise, the Episcopal Church dictates that: “Under no circumstances may the information given be revealed by the priest, unless the penitent gives permission.” The conservative Anglican Church in North America also discusses this importance of maintaining confidentiality in confession: “Lastly, the seal, being absolute, means that if a person confesses to a crime—even if they tell you where they buried the body—the priest has no ability to act upon what he has heard in any way. He cannot make an anonymous report to the authorities.”
Maintaining the safety of children and vulnerable people is an important and even laudable goal, of course. Yet doing so needs to happen with evidenced-based policies that don’t violate religious freedoms, undermining the confidence people have in their clergy and their churches.
Confession is not the same as sitting down with a friend or a counselor and sharing a wrong that a person has committed. Rather, it’s a sacred moment where a sorrowful and repentant person tells their sins to a clergy person who is standing in the stead of God, hearing those wrongs and forgiving them. Religious people do not believe they are confessing to a person, but rather that these sins are confessed to God himself.
Obviously, these are crimes, and obviously part of contrition should be stopping the harm. Often clergy will urge or even require penitents to take action in response to their confession, which would likely include divulging it to lawful authorities in such cases. But their ability to minister to souls and even get congregation members to take such steps in repentance requires the trust that confidentiality provides.
Attempting to force clergy members to choose between their religious vows and civic responsibilities will not keep children safer. Nor is there any way to assume that a law inserting itself into churches would be content to stop with child abuse and neglect as the only exceptions to the confessional seal. What happens when a new provision is presented, positing that all vulnerable people with a power differential need their harm to be reportable?
Nothing bars clergy from urging people to self-report their crimes. None of the current laws on the books nor religious mandates discourage this, because there is nothing improper with telling someone that they need to alert the authorities to make a clean breast of things. Clergy are able and willing to accompany people to police stations to report these wrongs, something that cannot happen if the trust and relationships that would bring this about in the first place are violated by the law and state. California is lessening the force of good from its churches, not increasing it.
Opening the door to this is a well-intentioned evil. People will not stop wronging others because their priests are compelled to report them. Instead, people who desperately need Christ’s peace and forgiveness will no longer be able to approach confession with the certainty that what is said there will stay there. This will hamper their free and full confession and most likely keep such sins in the darkness longer rather than bring them out for proper punishment.
People do not enter seminaries with aspirations of becoming informants on hurting and devastated people. Rather, they enter the ministry to help people spiritually, and their rights to do so in America must be protected and fought for. Do we have the right to free exercise of religion, or do we not?