A procession of sexual assault victims on Tuesday urged the Senate to pass a law requiring priests and other religious leaders to report child abuse, ending a legal exemption that allows them to keep information confidential if they learn it during confessions.
One speaker, Kameron Torres, told lawmakers that he was sexually abused twice while growing up in a Jehovah’s Witness community. When his mother learned of the abuse and tried to report it to the church elders, “They told her, ‘It’s in God’s hands now,” Torres said.
Torres has since left that community, but said his abusers are still there and still in positions of power over potential victims.
“The universe is telling us to protect the children,” Torres said.
While members of the clergy are considered mandated reporters of abuse — meaning state law compels them to inform the police if they suspect a child being abused — there is an exemption to that requirement if the priest learns of the abuse through “penitential communication,” such as the Catholic rite of confession.
Senate Bill 360 erases that exemption, and puts “religious folks on a level playing field with other mandated reporters,” such as doctors, lawyers and mental heath professionals, said Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.
As chair of the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Skinner and other lawmakers took testimony from both supporters and opponents of the bill.
Opposing the bill were representatives from the California Catholic Conference and the Pacific Justice Institute Center for Public Policy.
Andrew Rivas, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told lawmakers that the bill, if passed, would make religious adherents less likely to consult with their spiritual leaders.
“I don’t think anyone would use the penitential communication any longer. It would be gone,” he said.
Kevin Snider, who serves as legal counsel for the institute, cautioned lawmakers against overturning the Catholic seal of confession, which he called a “millennia-old religious practice.”
Snider said SB 360 would conflict not just with Catholic beliefs, but practices in certain Protestant denominations, the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Church of Scientology as well.
He said the bill “requires the clergy to sail between the Scylla and Charybdis,” referring to a tale in the Odyssey in which sailors had to pass between two deadly dangers. Failing to disclose abuse would be a misdemeanor offense while breaking the seal of confession would result in immediate excommunication from the church, he said.
Snider also warned that SB 360 would infringe on the clergy’s First Amendment-protected religious beliefs.
“The church should not be used as a tool of the state,” he said.
Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson told Snider that “the First Amendment is not unlimited.”
“We do have laws prohibiting bigamy (also a practice for some religions),” Jackson said.
Jackson said SB 360 is necessary because “we have had a plague, an epidemic, of excuses and claims of religion which have allowed pedophiles and abusers to exist in this country and this world unfettered for far too long.”
Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, said that while the cause of SB 360 was “righteous,” he worried that it could be “an expensive disappointment after a few years” if the law were to be struck down in a legal challenge.
“There are times when the courts are the avenues we need to pursue,” Jackson said, adding that it might be appropriate for the United States Supreme Court to settle the matter.
As the bill hearing came to a close, Skinner, herself an abuse survivor, thanked those survivors who spoke Tuesday and offered them some advice.
“It does get easier to speak about it, but the experience you experienced, they never go away. You don’t forget,” she said.
After the hearing Tuesday, Torres said he was confident in SB 360’s prospects.
“I think we have a strong argument. I think it’s pretty obvious they (those who opposed the bill) didn’t. It’s time. It’s beyond time,” he said.