Caving to priests

After California lawmaker pulls abuse reporting bill, what happens in the confessional booth will stay in the confessional booth

Despite recent revelations about the toll the clergy pedophilia scandal has exacted on California, lawmakers caved to pressure from Catholic Church higher-ups and withdrew legislation that would have required priests to report abuse revealed to them during confession.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, a Silicon Valley Democrat, pulled his controversial Senate Bill 360 the night before a July 9 hearing by the Assembly’s Committee on Public Safety. Clergy are already considered mandated reporters under state law, meaning they must report to authorities suspected instances of child abuse or neglect, though that requirement ends once inside the confessional booth. SB 360 would have lifted the seal on penitential communications between parishioners and their priests, as well as confessions made by other clergy members or church employees.

Some Catholic groups criticized the bill as intruding upon a sacred relationship, and celebrated its withdrawal.

“The idea of having the government police the details of a Catholic sacrament is draconian,” Catholic League president Bill Donohue said in a statement. “Furthermore, it would forever place in jeopardy the religious liberty protections afforded by the First Amendment. It would also do irreparable damage to the priest-penitent relationship, compromising, as it would, the confidentiality of the confessional.”

Some, including Catholic theologian Rich Raho, who works at Chicago’s oldest all-boys Catholic high school, had a different take.

“Make no mistake, while CA #SB360 has been pulled from consideration and many consider this move a win, opponents of the Bill and abuse survivors argue that the Sacrament of Confession is being used to cover up abuse,” Raho, campus minister and religious studies instructor at Saint Patrick High, tweeted July 8.

In March, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento released its long-awaited list naming more than 60 priests and deacons credibly accused of sexual abusewhile ministering here and elsewhere. Only five were removed from ministry, while another four remain fugitives from justice. Twenty clergy members died before they were held accountable for their actions.