Earlier this year, California State Sen. Jerry Hill filed a bill to remove clergy members from a list of those exempt from reporting child abuse.
As it stands, if someone walks into a confessional booth and admits to molesting a child, the priest doesn’t have to do anything with that information. Just say a couple of Hail Marys and be done with it. Compare that to public school teachers, who are required by law to tell a social worker if they learn about (or suspect) a child being abused.
The Church, of course, doesn’t want to play by those rules. Vatican officials claim the “seal of confession” is sacrosanct. Anything said in a confessional booth must be kept secret no matter what.
That leads to absurd consequences. In Australia, for example, a priest confessed to committing 1,500 instances of molestation (not a typo) to 30 separate priests over 25 years. Because of the sacred seal, though, no one ever reported his crimes, allowing the abuse to continue.
If you aren’t willing to make changes that involve priests reporting information about sexual abuse against children, can you really be that committed to fixing this problem?
That’s what Hill wants to change in California with Senate Bill 360.
“Individuals who harm children or are suspected of harming children must be reported so a timely investigation by law enforcement can occur,” Hill said in a statement announcing Senate Bill 360.
“The law should apply equally to all professionals who have been designated as mandated reporters of these crimes — with no exceptions, period. The exemption for clergy only protects the abuser and places children at further risk,” Hill said.
Church officials are obviously against this. They don’t want to help children if it gets in the way of their archaic traditions.
On Friday, this bill overcame the first major hurdle: It passed through the Senate Appropriations committee 4-2, which means it can now be voted on by the full State Senate. (The two people who voted against the bill — Senators Patricia C. Bates and Brian W. Jones — are both Republicans. The rest are Democrats.)
There was, however, an amendment to the bill before it was passed in that committee.
The bill now says anything told to a priest in a confessional can still remain confidential, unless the person confessing to abuse is a clergy member or someone else working in the same building. That means random strangers who confess to abusing a child for the sake of getting their sins absolved can still do so knowing that their confession will remain a secret.
It’s a loophole. But it doesn’t mean Church employees get to slip through the cracks.
Not that the Catholic Church is any happier with the bill. Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez still says it goes too far:
… while I appreciate that the committee accepted several of the Church’s recommendations to strengthen mandated reporting requirements for clergy, as amended SB 360 still denies the sanctity of confession to every priest in the state and to thousands of Catholics who work with priests in parishes and other Church agencies and ministries.
Even as amended, SB 360 remains an unacceptable violation of our religious freedoms that will do nothing to protect children. As a Catholic community, let us continue to work with lawmakers for a bill that truly advances our shared goals of fighting the scourge of child sexual abuse in our society.
That’s a weird thing to say. Of course this amended bill will protect children. The only thing Gomez is trying to protect here are priests or Church workers who admit to abuse (or having knowledge of it). Those people don’t deserve protection. Any clergy member who hears about those crimes in a confessional booth should absolutely be obligated to tell authorities.
I still hope this bill gets the support it needs in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. Let the Church complain all it wants. It’s a horrible look for Catholic leaders to say they have a religious right to cover up their knowledge of child abuse, allowing it to happen again.
(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)