Bishop’s Letter on Senate Bill 360
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
With affection and serious concern I write to ensure that you are aware of a current matter in the State senate that threatens the practice of our faith as Catholics and does nothing to advance the protection of victims of abuse. In a state and in a nation founded upon fundamental religious freedoms, instead of protecting victims of abuse, Senate Bill 360 would require priests to violate the seal of confession under particular conditions determined by the state.
SB 360 is an example of good intentions making bad legislation. Sexual abuse against anyone, especially children, is a terrible sin and crime that affects every area of our society. The Catholic Church has undertaken important reforms and is now a leader in protecting minors from sexual abuse. Here in the Diocese of Orange we have been a leader in ensuring the safety of our children and are currently one of six dioceses in California participating in an Independent Compensation Program for victims. You may read more about these efforts at justice.rcbo.org.
It’s important for you to know that priests are already “mandated reporters” in California, required by law to report cases of sexual abuse that we suspect, except if we’re to hear about it in the confessional. The bill’s key assumption is a failure to understand the nature of the sacrament. Child sexual abusers are manipulative and deceitful, grooming victims and cleverly disguising their horrific acts. They do not confess to priests in the confessional, still less if they know they would be reported. As Archbishop Gomez put it recently, “Hearings on the bill have not presented a single case – in California or anywhere else – where this kind of crime could have been prevented if a priest had disclosed information he had heard in confession.”
This bill also represents a catastrophic breach of religious freedom and would not withstand constitutional scrutiny were it signed into law. Because priests are bound to the seal of the confessional, they will go to jail before they break that confidentiality. However, that would not even be an issue, because were this to become law no offender would ever step near the confessional again and provide the opportunity for appropriate action to be taken. As for victims, priests are already able to create space for and invite appropriate conversation outside the confessional to be able to follow up and be sure that the appropriate actions are taken. Were this bill to become law, it might make it even less likely that victims would come forward to their religious leaders as well.
Penitential privileges advance important religious liberty and privacy interests, not only for priests but for lay Catholics as well. By what other compelling interests could the state demand a breach of confessional confidentiality: if a woman has had an abortion, if a man has failed to pay child support, if a parishioner inadvertently reveals she is undocumented?
In recent Sunday readings from the book of Revelation, we hear the One seated on the throne say, “Behold, I make all things new.” In the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (“confession”), we “look squarely at the sins [we are] guilty of, [take] responsibility for them, and thereby [open ourselves] again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible” (Catechism, 1455). This grace of beginning anew and discovering the greatness of God’s love is a gift we celebrate especially during this Easter season and as we look forward to the coming of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost.
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, that same Spirit teaches us and reminds us of the forgiveness of God and grants us peace. In confession, we are made new. We are renewed in the keeping of the commandment to love God and our neighbor. What does not happen in the confessional is the disclosure of any information which puts children at greater risk. What can and does happen in preparing for and engaging in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is abundant opportunity for conversion, accompaniment, and healing truth-telling. Please tell the state of California not to invade this central, life-giving practice of our faith and instead to work together to eliminate the scourge of abuse throughout this great state.
With gratitude for your support and continued prayers,
Most Rev. Kevin W. Vann, J.C.D., D.D.