Here’s some penance: The state wants to hear church confessions about abuse, let it

Hear church sexual abuse survivors voice support for SB 360

Church sexual abuse survivors voiced their support for SB 360 on April 2, 2019. The bill would require priests to report confessions of abuse from other priests, forcing a choice of state law over canon law.
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Church sexual abuse survivors voiced their support for SB 360 on April 2, 2019. The bill would require priests to report confessions of abuse from other priests, forcing a choice of state law over canon law.

The state Senate passed a bill on Thursday that would require Catholic priests to rat out other Catholic priests for admitting that they molested a child – even if it were made during the sacrament of confession.

Authored by Democrat Jerry Hill of the Bay Area, Senate Bill 360 is like a TV drama “ripped from the headlines.” Catholic priests have been molesting kids for decades and getting away with it in some cases. The church has been all-too-slow in responding appropriately, or in fully atoning for its unspeakable complicity in the abuse of children by members of the clergy. The headlines have been endless.

Hill’s bill is a direct response to the outrage over the abuse of children. The fact that Hill’s bill crosses the line supposedly separating church and state seemed of little concern to the 30 state senators – including Sacramento’s Democrat Richard Pan, and Republican Jim Nielsen, whose district includes Roseville and Yuba City.

Separation of church and state, anyone? Despite its good intentions, and the despicable behavior of men in collars, Hill’s bill is undeniably an incursion by government into the protected religious freedoms of the Catholic faith.

And maybe this one is called for. Maybe this is the case of church-meets-state half way, and recognizes the state it’s in.


Right now, Hill is drawing the line on priests taking confession from other priests. His bill is saying these confessions shouldn’t be protected by anonymity. The bill says that Catholics are “mandated reporters” compelled to go to the authorities when they know, hear or see a case of abuse against a child.

On the Senate floor on Thursday, Hill said that doctors and psychiatrists must report child abuse each and every time, with no exceptions. So, why not priests? Hill’s bill seeks to strip the clergy of its religious exemption that protects confidential communications, including confessions.

Whether it ultimately becomes law, Hill’s bill is a form of penance for the Catholic Church. The church is rightly taking heat – and is the subject of criminal probes by prosecutors nationwide – for keeping the secrets of abusers for years.

Not only that, church leaders now concede that they moved bad priests around to other parishes until calling the cops. This happened even though clergy are “mandated reporters” under state law, along with teachers, doctors, social workers, peace officers and several other job categories recognized under the state Child Abuse Neglect and Reporting Act.

Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, a strong critic of Hill’s bill, understands why it has appeal with some segments of the public,

“There is no doubt that the credibility of clergy has been put under a cloud,” Soto said on Thursday. That cloud has helped create, “the environment of suspicion we are living in now.”

Yes, the Catholic Church is going to ramp up its objections to Hill’s bill starting at masses this weekend. Soto is preparing talking points for priests. And church leaders may still get bailed out when Hill’s bill goes over to the Assembly and faces far more scrutiny than the occasional story in the religious press that has marked the attention of this bill so far.

SB 360 has flown under the radar – until now. Those of us concerned about church complicity in child abuse are rightly wary of taking the church’s word on any aspect of this issue. It’s a crisis created by Catholic bishops more concerned about the reputation of the church than the victims for too long.

And if Hill’s bill had been a blanket attack on all confessions – if it said any confession of child abuse made by anyone had to be reported – it probably would not have passed the Senate. But by stripping the bill down to focus only on confessions involving priests and church employees, Hill has made this a bill that can capture the disgust toward the church people feel over the abuse of children by priests.

The church is going to have a hard time getting out its message because of its past missteps and because many people – including Catholics – misunderstand the sacrament of confession.

To begin with, confessions are mostly anonymous. In many cases, the priest and penitent are separated by a door or veil. The point is for the penitent to open up about a burden or a sin or a regret to come to terms with it spiritually.

“Catholics enter into confession as a sign of faith,” Soto said. “Because there is faith and trust that God’s grace is at work.”

Priests are forbidden to break the seal of confession. And you can take this to the bank: Priests will go to jail to uphold canon law. (A violation of Hill’s would be a misdemeanor.)

Do we really want to force priests to choose between state law and canon law? Are there a lot of people who would have no sympathy for this choice? Yes.

But in Sacramento, the last time a priest was sent to prison for molestation, he tried to avoid punishment by claiming he had made his admission in a penitential confession.

Uriel Ojeda, who is in prison for molesting a teenage girl, actually confessed to an investigator hired by the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento. That confession was not protected by canon law. In that case, the church immediately turned Ojeda over to authorities when they learned of the accusation against him.

The way the Sacramento church handled the Ojeda situation does indicate they know the difference between the confession of a priest to another priest and the confession of a priest to a lay person.

Soto is not wrong when he says the government being in the position of defining religious freedom is dangerous.

“And more often than not, we hear confessions from the victims,” he said.

It’s a slippery slope. Where does it stop? If SB 360 gains steam, the Catholic Church will fight it. But until then, here’s an idea for consideration: Don’t fight it.

Maybe this is part of the church’s penance. Maybe accepting this could be part of the church making a gesture of reconciliation toward a suspicious public.

The church could say: We will forgo the right of priests to have confession if what they confess is the harming of a child. It’s something to consider given the unspeakable harm that inspired Hill’s bill in the first place.

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.