The National Catholic Review
Confessional Seal Under Attack In Several States

The crisis in the U.S. Catholic Church caused by the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy has sparked a variety of state legislative initiatives to strengthen child abuse laws, including efforts in five states to force a priest to violate the seal of confession if he learns about abuse of a child during a sacramental confession. Legislatures in Maryland and Kentucky have rebuffed those attempts, but in early March new bills were introduced in Nevada and Florida. A New Hampshire bill introduced in January was due to be reported out of committee in late March.

“This is of great concern to us,” D. Michael McCarron, the Florida Catholic Conference’s executive director, said on March 5 about bill H1321, filed in the Florida House the previous day. “As it’s written now, it will eliminate the clergy confidentiality privilege and thereby directly impact the seal of confession in the sacrament of reconciliation,” he told Catholic News Service.

Church law says if a priest directly violates the seal of confession—revealing something said in confession in such a way that the penitent is or can be identified—he is automatically excommunicated. Even an indirect violation—when there is simply a risk that something revealed about a confession could lead another person to recognize the identity of the penitent and his sin—is a church crime punishable by penalties commensurate with the seriousness of the violation.

In Maryland, Cardinal William F. Keeler of Baltimore and Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, whose archdiocese includes five Maryland counties, promised to go to jail rather than obey a law requiring them to break the seal of the sacrament. They spoke out in late February after bills were introduced that would require a priest to report information about sexual abuse of a child learned in confession unless the penitent in question was the perpetrator. Church law allows no such distinctions, saying simply that the priest is “absolutely forbidden” to betray any penitent.

In the uproar that followed public opposition by the two cardinals, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee rejected the Senate bill unanimously on Feb. 28. An identical bill in the House of Delegates was withdrawn.

Two different bills were introduced in January in the Kentucky Legislature. In the Senate, SB51 sought an exception to the clergy-penitent privilege in the case of child sexual abuse “when the penitent is another member of the clergy.” In the House, HB58 would retain the general clergy privilege of confidentiality except for “any communication relating to the neglect or abuse of a minor child.”

The Kentucky Catholic Conference opposed both measures. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the conference’s executive director, Vincent E. Senior, called the proposals an assault on the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion. “The confidentiality of the confessional is at the very heart of the Catholic faith and must not be infringed upon by state government,” he said. “If this legislation passes, it would seriously damage the historical inviolability of the seal of confession.” Senior told CNS that testimony highlighting complex legal problems in both bills led to their being shelved for the Legislature’s current regular session, but further hearings are planned before the next session.

New Hampshire already includes priests and ministers as mandatory reporters of child abuse and says attorney-client privilege is the only exception to reporting requirements. But a new bill in the state’s House of Representatives, HB541, would amend state law on witness privilege in court to say the privilege given to confidential communication with a minister of religion acting in a professional capacity as confessor or spiritual advisor “shall not apply to the disclosure of information relative to suspected or confirmed child abuse.”

In written testimony for a hearing on the bill held on Feb. 11 by the House’s Child and Family Law Committee, Diane Murphy Quinlan of the Manchester diocesan public policy office said the seal of confession is so sacred that a priest cannot violate it “even if doing so would save a life or further the ends of human justice.” Legislation requiring a priest to testify in violation of that seal would interfere with the constitutional “rights of Catholics to practice their religion,” she said. She stressed that the seal applies only to information learned in sacramental confession, not to anything discovered outside the sacrament, even if the priest learned the same thing in the confessional.

Current Nevada law includes “a clergyman, practitioner of Christian science or religious healer” among mandated reporters of child abuse or neglect but adds the exception, “unless he has acquired the knowledge of the abuse or neglect from the offender during a confession.” Bill SB223, introduced in the Nevada Senate on March 3, would strike that exception clause. Officials of the state’s two dioceses, Reno and Las Vegas, immediately objected, saying a priest cannot violate the seal even if the state orders him to do so.

The bill introduced in the Florida House of Representatives on March 4, H1321, would add clergy and ministers of religion to the list of mandated reporters of child abuse, abandonment and neglect. For such cases it would explicitly abrogate any right of privileged communications “between any member of the clergy...and a person seeking spiritual counsel and advice.”

McCarron, of the Florida Catholic Conference, said the conference “would vigorously work to have that provision” changed. He said that if an exception were made for the seal of confession, the conference would “probably not” oppose making clergy mandated reporters. The state’s seven dioceses already have a common policy “that’s very clear on the requirement for priests and other employees to report any known or suspected child abuse,” he said.

According to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, the laws of North Carolina, Rhode Island and West Virginia as well as New Hampshire include clergy among mandated reporters of child abuse and allow the attorney-client privilege as the only exception to mandatory reporting requirements. The Texas child abuse reporting law permits no exceptions for confidential or privileged communication, not even that of an attorney with his client.

Hong Kong Prelate Surprised at Chinese Bishop’s Criticism

Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong said he was surprised that his opposition to an anti-subversion law was criticized by a bishop of the government-controlled church in China. He said in a statement on March 7 that his counterpart in China, Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan of Beijing, “is in a situation where he can’t control himself,” reported UCA News. It was “strange that Bishop Fu interferes [in] Hong Kong’s internal affairs,” said Bishop Zen, a frequent critic of the anti-subversion law. Bishop Fu said that the law was important for national security reasons and should be supported by Hong Kong clergy and bishops.

Victims of Sexual Abuse by Priests, Nuns Hear Apologies

Victims of sexual abuse by priests and nuns heard apologies on March 9 at a parish in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. Some of the victims, who included men and women, wept as they met one-on-one with Catholic lay people, religious brothers and sisters, and priests and deacons who stood along the front and sides of the parish meeting room at Mary, Mother of the Church in Burnsville, Minn. Those who apologized were not the perpetrators, but they spoke on behalf of colleagues who were. “It was humbling,” said the Rev. James Zappa, pastor of the Burnsville parish and one of five priests who participated. “It’s always very hard to admit that my brothers in priesthood have abused people in that way...just the evil that would go on.” A 60-year-old woman from St. Paul, who said she is still afraid to speak publicly about her abuse despite nine years of working through the trauma, said, “I don’t think they’ve ever apologized before.”

News Briefs

• Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato, president of the Philippine bishops’ conference, said citizens in the southern Philippines overwhelmingly reject the use of U.S. troops in combat against rebel groups. They would support the presence of U.S. troops if they were there to advise, train and provide technical and logistical support to Philippine troops, he said.

• Kathleen L. McChesney, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Office for Child and Youth Protection, has told U.S. dioceses they should have comprehensive “safe environment” programs for child protection in place by June 20.

• The Boston archdiocesan budget will be cut to $12 million next year, half what it was two years ago. Mass attendance was down 14 percent in its annual head-count last fall, the archdiocese reported.

• Pope John Paul II has ordered the preparation of a shorter, simpler official version of the 865-page Catechism of the Catholic Church. The new text is to present the basics of Catholic faith and morals “in a simple and clear manner” and serve as a reference point for the preparation of local catechetical materials, the Vatican said on March 7.

• The percentage of television programs depicting sexual intercourse was 14 percent in 2001-2, double the figure of 7 percent in 1997-98, reports Kaiser Family Foundation. Another study in the journal Developmental Psychology found that people who watch more violence on television as children, and who believe the violence they see on television is true to life, have a greater chance of being more aggressive and violent themselves as adults.