A bill in California that would have forced Catholic priests to infringe upon their religious obligation to keep confessions sealed has been removed by its sponsor one day before debate was scheduled on the legislation.
California Senate Bill 360 was taken off the July 9th legislative agenda involving a meeting of the Public Safety Committee. State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), the bill’s sponsor, made the decision soon after the Public Safety Committee issued a report on the bill on July 8th detailing concerns about the proposed legislation and its conflicts with the First Amendment.
The seal of confession incumbent upon Catholic priests
According to canon law established by the Catholic Church, priests risk excommunication if they break the seal of confession by sharing any piece of information learned through the sacramental process with anyone, for any reason, at any time. Other punishments are also possible for this violation, including forfeiture of clerical status.
The bill passed the California State Senate first by a wide margin. It would have compelled clergy in the Catholic Church to violate their oath to seal confessions in some situations. This included if they learned of child abuse through the confessions of other priests or officials of the Catholic Church.
Objections to SB 360
Sen. Jerry Hill did not withdraw Senate Bill 360. Rather, he paused the bill when it became apparent the legislation as written would not currently pass. He does intend to bring it back in a renegotiated form for later consideration.
Beyond the objections to the bill surrounding religious liberty issues, many voices including those coming from the Public Safety Committee report, have asserted that the bill, if made law, would be highly problematic to enforce. Other widespread opposition to the bill preceded Hill’s decision to table the legislation at this time. More than 100,000 Catholics sent letters to make their opposition to SB 360 known.
Further problems preventing the bill’s passage
In its early stages, SB 360 contained provisions that would eliminate exemption in state law that permits clergy to bypass legal liability for not reporting an incident of child sexual abuse learned behind the seal of confession. An amendment to the bill was added in committee that limited the proposed law to only cover confessions from a clergy member or church employee.
The bill as finally constituted presented some difficulties related to its neutrality. For instance, under the proposed law, if a coach, teacher, or janitor confessed to a priest he or she committed child sex abuse, the priest would have no legal duty to report that information to law enforcement. However, if the offenders mentioned worked in the same Catholic parish where the priest worked, that priest would have a legal duty to report. At all times, the confession of a priest to child sex abuse would always compel the duty to report. Therefore, as written, the bill would leave some abusers protected and others exposed to legal consequences.
Some practical issues related to SB 360 also come into play. As previously mentioned, a priest who breaks the Catholic seal of confession may suffer immediate excommunication. Any failure to report child sexual abuse is a misdemeanor offense in California. Therefore, the question becomes: What priest would opt for excommunication (by breaking the confession seal) rather than submit to a possible county jail sentence of six months?
At Taylor & Ring, we understand the delicate nature of this situation and the competing interests involved. We are dedicated to supporting any and all efforts to protect children from sexual abuse and to support the families of those who have been victimized. Our Los Angeles child sex abuse lawyers are unyielding in their determination to fight for you and help you obtain the justice you deserve if you or your child have been victimized by sexual abuse. To arrange a free case review, give us a call today at 310.209.4100 or use our contact form.