Capitol Alert

California child sex abuse bill pulled amid opposition from Catholic church

California lawmakers are not ready to pass a bill that would require members of the clergy to break the seal of confession if they learn of child sexual abuse.

Sen. Jerry Hill, who wrote the proposal, said he “hit the pause button” on Senate Bill 360 because he became aware that it would not pass.

“This issue remains important to me, and I will continue to champion it in the hope that my colleagues can come together on legislation. I strongly believe that for any institution self-policing and self-investigation are not effective ways to combat alleged abuse, as our own state Legislature has found,” Hill said in a statement released Tuesday morning.

“To be clear, I have placed SB 360 on hold. The bill is on pause, it has not been withdrawn,” he said.

Originally, SB 360 sought to remove an exemption in California law that allowed members of the clergy to avoid legal liability for not reporting child sex abuse learned of under seal of of confession.

The bill was amended in committee so that the law would only apply to confession from either a church employee or a member of the clergy.

“Under this bill, if a teacher, coach, or janitor confessed that he or she had abused a child, a priest has no duty to report the conduct to law enforcement,” according to an analysis presented to the Assembly Committee on Public Safety, which was set to review the bill. “But if that teacher, coach or janitor happened to work at the Catholic parish where the priest also worked, the duty to report would be triggered. Additionally, the confession of any priest would always trigger the duty to report.”

The analysis said that the bill, in its current form, “calls into question the neutrality of the proposed law.”

“Why should some abusers be protected and not others?” the analysis said.

In addition to civil liberty questions, the analysis also raised practical concerns about SB 360.

Failure to report child sex abuse is a misdemeanor offense; breaking the Catholic seal of confession is grounds for immediate excommunication.

“It is difficult to imagine what priest would choose to be excommunicated rather than serve a maximum sentence of six months in a county jail,” the analysis said.

Hill’s proposal drew emotional testimony at a hearing in April, where dozens lined up to speak in support of the bill, including Kameron Torres, who said he was abused twice while growing up in a Jehovah’s Witness community.

“The universe is telling us to protect the children,” Torres told lawmakers.

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The bill also had the support of several groups including California Civil Liberties Advocacy, which argued that children should be afforded equal protection under the California Child Abuse Neglect Reporting Act.

The bill was opposed by several groups, including the California Catholic Conference, which argued “there is no evidence that we are aware of to suggest that there has ever been an issue with clergy failing to make mandatory child abuse reports as a result of information received during the sacrament of confession.”

The bill also was opposed by more than 125,000 individuals, according to the bill analysis.

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for the Sacramento Bee. 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.
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