SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The law has long treated confession of sin to a priest as sacred. Even clergy who hear a fellow priest's confession to sexually abusing a child generally can't be compelled to report it to authorities.
But should they be?
California lawmakers are considering that fundamental question amid heightened scrutiny of the child sex abuse scandal roiling the Roman Catholic Church. The state Senate resoundingly approved a bill last week that would force clergy who hear confessions of child sex abuse from another priest to report it. Church leaders say it is an unconstitutional government intrusion and violation of religious freedom.
"Faith leaders have been the only exception to this rule," the bill's author, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said, adding that even doctors and spouses must report suspected child abuse reported to them in confidence. "Instead of protecting children, some have been shielding abusers. It is time for California to put children first."
The California Catholic Conference opposes Hill's bill, SB 360, arguing it will not help protect children and dangerously weaken religious freedom by "interjecting the government into the confessional."
"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," the California Catholic Conference said. A priest who "breaks the seal," the group added, "is automatically excommunicated."
"We are dealing here with an egregious violation of the principle of religious liberty," Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said in a statement.
However, the bill comes at a time when the Roman Catholic Church is under fire over priests who sexually abused children. Reporting of widespread abuse in the Boston diocese prompted U.S. bishops in 2002 to adopt a Charter for the Protection of Children, known as the Dallas Charter, to prevent child abuse within the church.
But more recent revelations like a bombshell Pennsylvania investigation in August that found widespread child sex abuse and cover-ups over decades in six dioceses has sparked fresh outrage. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is now investigating the Golden State's dioceses.
The bill is headed to the state Assembly after passing out of the Senate on a 30-4 vote. Senators Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Hills, Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, Brian Jones, R-El Cajon, and Jeff Stone, R-Murrieta, were opposed.