California State Capitol building in Sacramento. Via Shutterstock
– Bishop Michael Barber, S.J., of the Diocese of Oakland, California, has said he would sooner accept arrest and prison than comply with a state law that would force priests to violate the seal of confession. Barber made the statement in a letter released to the diocese on Tuesday. “I will go to jail before I will obey this attack on our religious freedom,” wrote Barber.
“Even if this bill passes, no priest may obey it. The protection of your right to confess to God and have your sins forgiven in total privacy must be protected. I urge you to contact your State Senator today to protest this bill.”
The bishop said he is entirely in favor of laws that protect children from abuse, and supports the work undertaken by the Church to ensure the safety of minors. But, he insisted, this support does not extend to Senate Bill 360, a proposed state law which would force priests and other religious ministers to report suspected cases of child abuse in violation of priest-penitent privilege.
Barber said that a local priest had come forward to tell him his teenage parishioners were now afraid to receive the sacrament of reconciliation out of fear the priest would go to the police with their sins. He called the bill “misguided,” and said it “does nothing to support our efforts” to promote safe environments.
Senate Bill 360 was amended to require the sacramental seal be violated in instances where a priest learns of or suspects abuse while hearing the confession of a fellow priest or colleague. The bill was originally drafted to require priests to violate the seal if they came to suspect abuse following the confession of any penitent whatsoever.
The bill passed the California Senate on Thursday by an overwhelming margin, with legislators voting 30-2 in favor of the measure.
In a statement after that vote, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez said he was “deeply disappointed” by the result and that, even with the amendments that had been made to it before the vote it “still denies the sanctity of confession to every priest in the state and to thousands of Catholics who work with priests in parishes and other Church agencies and ministries.”
The bill’s sponsor, California state Senator Jerry Hill (D-Calif. 13), has claimed that “the clergy-penitent privilege has been abused on a large scale, resulting in the unreported and systemic abuse of thousands of children across multiple denominations and faiths.”
The senator has claimed that such abuse has been revealed through “recent investigations by 14 attorneys general, the federal government, and other countries.”
Despite recent investigations into the clerical sexual abuse crisis in different countries and jurisdictions, no data exists establishing or indicating the use of sacramental confession either to facilitate or perpetuate the sexual abuse of minors.
Per Canon Law, priests who violate the seal of confession by sharing anything learned within the sacramental context to anyone, at any time, for any reason is subject to automatic excommunication and and further punishments, including loss of the clerical state.