Legislators in North Dakota have filed a bill — Senate Bill No. 2180 — that would 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?
The bill already has bipartisan support, having been introduced by state senators Judy Lee (R), Kathy Hogan (D), and Curt Kreun (R). It’s a fairly straightforward bill, too. It just takes the part of the law involving mandated reporters and crosses out the exemption for clergy members.
This should be a no-brainer. It should be passed unanimously. Allowing priests to keep evidence of child sexual abuse hidden because it’s between them and God is one of the reasons the Catholic Church has been the site of so much abuse.
According to the Catholic news outlet The Pillar, the punishment for not reporting this sort of abuse would be up to 30 days in prison or a $1,500 fine.
There’s already opposition from local Church leaders:
Christopher Dodson, executive director and general counsel for the North Dakota Catholic Conference, told The Pillar that the bill “comes as a surprise” and is “certainly a violation of our religious freedom.”
Dodson said that the state Catholic conference, which represents North Dakota’s two dioceses on matters of public policy, would “definitely oppose the bill.”
No one should have “religious freedom” to allow child rape to continue when they have the power to stop it.
You may recall that a similar bill in heavily-Democratic California, in 2019, was ultimately withdrawn by its sponsor because he didn’t think there were enough votes for it to even get past a committee. He also feared it would be “impossible to enforce.” It didn’t help that the Catholic Church mobilized to defeat the bill before it ever got a hearing, proving once again that Catholic leaders will always side with their religious rules over the safety of children.
In North Dakota, however, all bills get a public hearing, public committee vote, and public House or Senate vote.
The bill has a long way to go before becoming law, but it deserves a fair shot. 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. Portions of this article were published earlier)