Editorial - Room with a View

Room with a view: Weaponizing a religious sacrament

It’s for the children, so it must be okay.

Senate Bill 360 changes the California Penal Code to require clergy hearing “penitential communications” to report persons who confess to child abuse or neglect.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I do not support shielding anybody who abuses children. However, this bill is highly unlikely to uncover abusers, and entirely assured of undermining religious freedom.

The bill was introduced by California State Senator Jerry Hill (D-CA13). It was approved by the Senate on a vote of 30 ayes, 4 noes and passed to the Assembly. The Senators who voted no were Patricia Bates (R-CA36), Shannon Grove (R-CA16), Brian Jones (R-CA38), and Jeff Stone (R-CA28).

To my immense personal disappointment, local California State Senators Tom Umberg (D-CA34) and Ling Ling Chiang (R-CA29) voted aye. I requested a formal statement from Senator Chang explaining her vote. This is the reply I received:

“Children who suffer from sexual abuse are robbed of their innocence and suffer a lifetime of emotional pain. Often times they also hold on to that pain by themselves and take years before they have the confidence to tell someone about what they endured. I cannot in good conscience vote to protect anyone, in any way, who perpetrated these kinds of acts. If someone knows a child was abused it should be reported. My record on religious freedom is unwavering and I wouldn’t have supported this bill if I thought it was designed to attack religious rights.”

(John Moorlach (R-CA37) did not vote. I am trusting that he had a good reason.)

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I do not support shielding anybody who abuses children.

What the bill if enacted would require

The bill amends the exemption for clergy in reporting suspected child abuse.

However, this law if enacted would meddle in a sacrament and violate freedom of religion. In short, it is unconstitutional.

According to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest of the bill:

Existing law, the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act, makes certain persons, including clergy, mandated reporters. Under existing law, clergy are required to report whenever the clergy, in their professional capacity or within the scope of their employment, has knowledge of or observes a child whom the mandated reporter knows or reasonably suspects has been the victim of child abuse or neglect, except when the clergy acquires the knowledge or reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect during a penitential communication. Failure by a mandated reporter to report an incident of known or reasonably suspected child abuse or neglect is a misdemeanor.

This bill would further define a penitential communication for purposes of the exception. The bill would also exempt from the exemption any penitential communication made between a clergy member and another person employed at the same facility or location as that clergy member, or between a clergy member and another clergy member. By redefining an exemption to a crime, this bill would impose a state-mandated local program.

This is an attempt to break the seal of confession. Despite the mealy-mouthed phrase “penitential communication,” this is aimed primarily at cracking open the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It directly conflicts with the First Amendment right of freedom of religion.

Any Catholic priest who breaks the seal of confession is automatically excommunicated. A priest answers to a Higher Authority than the State of California or the United States Constitution, and that doesn’t mean the Pope. Excommunicated implies that he could not licitly act as a priest. If he continued to perform priestly functions, he would be compounding his mortal sin.

Setting aside the Constitutional and religious issues, how would this be enforced? Will priests now be required to explicitly identify each penitent? Will logs of penitents be required?

And if breaking the seal of confession is desirable in the case of child abuse, why not also for murder or other serious crimes?

I urge our readers to take two steps immediately.

First, email your State Senator to express your opinion about his or her vote on this bill.

Second, email your State Assembly Member to express your opinion before the bill comes up for a vote. Residents of northwest Orange County can find information on our local elected officials page. Others can visit the California State Assembly website.

If the Assembly approves this bill, I expect Gov. Newsom to sign it despite his background as a (lapsed) Catholic. But you should email him, too.