The “seal of confession” is one of the most sacrosanct of Catholic beliefs and penitents rely on this unbreakable guarantee to freely confess and seek reconciliation with God. A priest who breaks the seal is automatically excommunicated (Canon 1388). Historically, at least four priests have been martyred for protecting the seal.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: 1467 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.
Yet now, the California Legislature is debating SB 360, a bill proposing to eliminate the penitential communication exemption when it comes to child sexual abuse.
Clergy are already mandatory reporters, as are many other professionals who learn of potential abuse during the regular course of their administrative duties. That should not be changed.
Spiritual counselors, such as – “priests, ministers, rabbis, religious practitioners, or similar functionaries of a church, temple, or recognized denomination or organization” – have a special relationship with the person they are counseling which has been respected in U.S. law for more than two centuries and similarly recognized in other nations around the world.
However, SB 360 amounts to a direct assault on the religious practice and the civic right to the free exercise of religion enshrined in the First Amendment.
On a very practical level, SB 360 would do nothing to protect children. The entire premise of the penitential communication is that what is shared with one’s confessor will never be revealed. A person bares his or her soul in these communications in hopes of getting right with God. Society benefits as people become closer to God. If the promise of confidentiality no longer exists, people will be reluctant to share their failings with their chosen confessor.
Attempts have been made in California to eliminate the exemption but have never passed the California legislature. The hope is that once the teaching and the benefits of keeping all penitential communications confidential is shared our legislature, they will once again see the light.
SB 360 was introduced last week but it has not yet been assigned to a policy committee. As soon as it is, look for an Action Alert to express your disapproval of the legislation.