New Bill Threatens Seal of Confession in Wisconsin

News: US News
by David Nussman  •  •  August 8, 2019   

One of several challenges to confession seal amid fallout from clerical abuse scandals

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MADISON, Wis. ( - After priest sex abuse scandals, Wisconsin joins the list of places where the seal of confession may be under threat from civil authorities.

Current Wisconsin law mandates that clergy members report any information they receive on the sexual abuse of minors but makes an exception for information that is received "through confidential communications made to him or her privately or in a confessional setting ... under the disciplines, tenets or traditions of his or her religion."

That exemption — which serves as a protection of the seal of confession — would be removed by the Clergy Mandatory Reporters Act, which was introduced in a press conference Wednesday. The Wisconsin Democrat lawmakers announcing the bill argued that it closes a "loophole" which has prevented abuse victims from seeking justice.

But faithful Catholics are worried that the bill, as written, would punish priests for defending the secrecy of confession in obedience to the Church. A priest is punished with excommunication if he discloses sins that were revealed to him in the confessional.

Along with the Clergy Mandatory Reporters Act, Wisconsin lawmakers also introduced the Child Victims Act, which would remove the statute of limitations for sexual abuse allegations. Current Wisconsin law requires that victims of child sexual abuse make their "action to recover damages" before they reach 35 years of age.

A similar challenge to the seal of confession has happened in California this year. Senate Bill 360, introduced in February, sought to expand the requirement that clergy go to law enforcement with evidence of child abuse by removing an exemption for information only known through confession.

Specifically, the bill would remove an exception currently in the California Penal Code for when a clergy member "acquires knowledge or a reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect during a penitential communication ... including, but not limited to, a sacramental confession."

The bill was later amended. But even the amended version would still require clergy to report knowledge obtained in "a penitential communication" from coworkers and/or fellow clergy — meaning a priest who hears another priest's confession would be expected to break the confessional seal.

In like manner, lawmakers in New York proposed a bill in March that would require priests to violate the seal of confession in order to report child sexual abuse. Known as the CARE Act, the legislation called for the amending of child abuse mandatory reporting laws in order to remove an exception on the books for the sacrament of confession.

Faithful Catholics are worried that the bill, as written, would punish priests for defending the secrecy of Confession.

Nor are potential challenges to the confessional seal limited to the United States; similarly troubling proposals have been made by lawmakers in Australia.

In August 2017, Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse published a list of recommendations for strengthening laws protecting minors from sex abuse. Included in that list was a recommendation to abolish the seal of confession.

Seemingly, some of Australia's lawmakers took this recommendation to heart.

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The legislature of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) voted in June 2018 to expand mandatory reporting laws. The measure included requiring priests to report information on child abuse obtained in the confessional.

In an op-ed at the time, Abp. Christopher Prowse of the Canberra-Goulburn archdiocese argued, "The government threatens religious freedom by appointing itself an expert on religious practices and by attempting to change the sacrament of confession while delivering no improvement in the safety of children."

After some discussion between ACT government officials and Catholic leaders, the law went into effect in April this year — without any protections for the sacrament of confession.

The archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn appeared to argue in a statement at the time that there are ways for clergy to comply with the child protection measure without violating the seal of confession.

The statement said, "In the unlikely case of unreported child abuse being disclosed during Confession, priests will, without breaching the Seal of Confession, take the opportunity to encourage and assist the person to report to civil authorities."

But ACT Attorney General Gordon Ramsay seemed discontent with this, telling the press, "There is no fair basis for any institution to claim that its internal ways of working should provide an exception to this law."


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