A bill by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, that would require Catholic priests to report their colleagues’ confessions of child abuse or neglect has been put on hold amid strong opposition from the Catholic Church.
Hundreds of Catholics had planned to testify against the bill at a public hearing Tuesday (July 9) that was abruptly canceled.
California law already requires clergy to report knowledge of child abuse and neglect. But they can keep it a secret if they learned about it during a confession.
Sen. Hill, who represents the mid-Peninsula, wrote a bill to change that, but only if the confession was from another religious leader or someone who works at the church. It passed the Senate by a vote of 30-4 in May.
Yesterday, Hill announced he was putting the bill on hold because it did not have enough support to pass the state Assembly. But Hill said the issue remains important to him, and he vowed to continue his efforts to pass it. Hill will leave the Senate at the end of 2020 due to term limits.
“Senate Bill 360 has one purpose only, not to restrict faith, but to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable of the faithful: children,” Hill said in a statement. “I strongly believe that for any institution self-policing and self-investigation are not effective ways to combat alleged abuse, as our own state Legislature has found.”
The state Legislature recently reformed how it investigates sexual misconduct claims against its own members after facing intense criticism.
The Catholic Conference of California had opposed the bill. The organization gave written comments to the legislature saying the church “agrees with the general principle that all youth should be protected from sexual abuse.”
Confidentiality of confessions at stake
But the conference added everyone has “the right to confess sins anonymously and confidentially,” saying the bill would deny that right to thousands of the church’s employees “based solely upon their particular religious and employment status.”
The conference said hundreds of Catholics had planned to testify against the bill during a public hearing that had been scheduled to take place yesterday in Sacramento.
“An amazing number of people spoke to their legislators to explain the sacred nature of the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” said Andrew Rivas, executive director of the California Catholic Conference. “It is important to our spirituality and our relation to God and to others. Our thanks go to all who played a part.”
Catholic dioceses across the country have recently revealed reports of widespread sexual abuse by priests and other church leaders. In California, the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento released a list of more than 40 priests in April it says have been accused of sexual abuse. In the Bay Area, a law firm suing California bishops compiled a list of more than 200 clergy it says have been accused of sexual abuse.
In its comments to state lawmakers, the California Catholic Conference said the church has not done all it could in the past to “bring abusers to face justice.” But it added “there is no evidence that we are aware of to suggest that there has ever been an issue with clergy failing to make mandatory child abuse reports as a result of information received during the Sacrament of Confession.”
— By the Associated Press