Hill's bill differed from others in that it would have applied only in cases where the confessor was a priest or church employee. Hill argued that while the law generally treats communications with lawyers and doctors as confidential, they still must report child abuse, and the same standard should apply to priests.
"Senate Bill 360 has one purpose only, not to restrict faith, but to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable of the faithful: children," Hill said Tuesday.
But the bill analysis also raised some practical concerns. Catholic penitents confess to a priest who sits behind a screen, which shields their identity and would make it difficult for the priest to testify that the confessor was a fellow priest or church employee.
The analysis also noted that child abusers would be unlikely to confess to a priest knowing they would be reported to authorities. And it said the misdemeanor penalty for not reporting would be unlikely to deter priests who would face automatic excommunication from the church.
The proposed California legislation and a similar effort in Australia caught the attention of Pope Francis, who ordered the publication of a document affirming the absolute secrecy of everything said in confession and calling on priests to defend it even at the cost of their lives. It called such legislation an "unacceptable offense against the liberty of the church, which does not receive its legitimacy from individual states, but from God."
Rob Radel, a Florida lawyer who has studied the priest-penitent privilege and who has represented churches in abuse cases, said there's little disagreement across the political spectrum about the need to punish child abusers. But he said efforts to breach the confidentiality of confession are problematic.
"If you're going to do away with it," Radel said, "nobody is ever going to talk to a priest or rabbi."
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