By Ruth Graham
The capital of California was named for a river that was in turn named for the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist. So it’s notable that last month state senators in Sacramento passed a bill that some say will force Catholic priests to violate a different Catholic sacrament: confession, also known as the sacrament of reconciliation.
Confession, as shown in a zillion pop cultural depictions, is a private conversation between a priest and an individual, meant to encourage Catholics to examine their consciences and request forgiveness from God. The format varies—for example, the two parties may sit face to face, or with an opaque screen between them—but the penitent is encouraged to offer a full inventory of her sins since her last visit. In return, the priest is bound by an ironclad oath of secrecy called the “seal of confession.”
Historically, American law has protected that seal, carving out a “clergy-penitent privilege” for the confessional that is similar to attorney-client privilege. But a bill making its way through the California state Legislature would ever-so-slightly crack the seal open. SB 360, which passed the state Senate in May, would require priests to report suspicions of child abuse obtained through confession in some circumstances. The bill is expected to be voted on by the lower house of the state Legislature in September, according to Catholic News Service. And many Catholics are not happy about it.
Clergy are already among the many professionals deemed mandated reporters for child abuse in California. But state law makes an exception for “penitential communications” obtained in settings where the cleric has a sacramental duty to maintain secrecy. As reporter Jack Jenkins recently pointed out, California’s pathbreaking 1990 law designating clergy as mandated reporters included a confessional carve-out that many other states added when they later adopted similar laws.