Capitol Alert

Catholic priests would have to report child sex abuse under proposed California law

The Catholic seal of confession could lose its legal protection in California, at least as it concerns to knowledge of child abuse.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, announced Wednesday that he is introducing a bill that would remove an exemption in the state’s “mandated reporter” law that allows all members of the clergy to withhold knowledge of suspected child abuse from law enforcement if that information is obtained during “a penitential communication,” such as Catholic confession.

“Individuals who harm children or are suspected of harming children must be reported so a timely investigation by law enforcement can occur,” Hill said in a statement announcing Senate Bill 360.

Doctors, police, therapists and social workers are among the 47 kinds of professionals who are required by state law to notify law enforcement about suspected abuse. Clergy also fall under that law, except if they learn about suspected abuse during a confessions.

“The law should apply equally to all professionals who have been designated as mandated reporters of these crimes — with no exceptions, period. The exemption for clergy only protects the abuser and places children at further risk,” Hill said.

Hill’s bill comes as religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church and several evangelical Christian denominations, continue to be rocked by allegations of clergy committing or enabling the sexual abuse of children. In California, Attorney General Xavier Becerra has announced an investigation into clergy sex abuse, calling for victims to come forward.

One faith leader speaking in support of Hill’s legislation is Rev. Jaime Romo of the Child-Friendly Faith Project, who said in a statement that “for too long, religious authorities have been protected from reporting these cases, leaving children vulnerable and unsafe.“ Romo identifies himself as a former Catholic.

In the Catholic Church, the seal of confession is considered sacred, and “any priest who directly betrays a penitent would incur an immediate and automatic excommunication,” according to the National Catholic Reporter.

Father John Landry of Massachusetts wrote for the National Catholic Register that a priest must honor the seal of confession “even if he’s threatened with imprisonment, torture or death.”

Landry has decried the international effort, of which Hill’s bill is the latest example, to mandate that priests report child sexual abuse to law enforcement no matter how they learn of it.

“Like the ancient Roman emperors used to try to break young Christian virgins by threatening to expose them to brothels if they didn’t capitulate to their whims, so still today some leaders and governments try to break priests’ fidelity by forcing them to violate the confessional seal,” he wrote.

Judy Klapperich-Larson, vice president of the group Survivor Network of Those Abused by Priests argued in a statement supporting SB 360 that state law should emphasize protecting children.

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse a child. Don’t let our abused children feel alone and helpless in their trauma-filled worlds,” she said.

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for McClatchy. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.