Speak No Evil: Catholic Priests Remain Silent on Confessions of Sexual Abuse

Jun 13, 2019

The Catholic confessional: site of anguish, embarrassment, moral reckoning, redemption and relief. The Sacrament of Confession offers congregants around the world the opportunity to unburden their consciousness and experience forgiveness. Parishioners relay their sins in relative anonymity, trusting that their secrets will be held in confidence by their priest. This trust is well-founded: according to church law, a priest who shares a penitent’s confession will be excommunicated – effectively barred from employment and participation in organized religious life. Further, the “clergy-penitent privilege” protects priests from disclosing congregants’ confessions – no matter the nature of these divulgences – to legal authorities. But the rash of recent media reports implicating the Catholic church in the protection of predatory clergy and the cover-up of their chronic sexual abuse has spurred advocates and some lawmakers to challenge the responsibilities of priests in the confessional.

Clergy are considered mandated reporters in many – but not all – states. Mandated reporters are required to report confirmed or suspected cases of child abuse to law enforcement; those who fail to disclose may face criminal charges. But in all but six states, priests are protected by the “seal of confession” – during confession, they can listen to their congregants’ reports of sexual abuse and not do a thing about it. In an effort to address growing concerns about sexual abuse in the church, Pope Francis recently decreed that Catholic priests and nuns must report sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy, as well as efforts to hide these violations, to church officials. According to NBC News, David Clohessy, former director of Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), is skeptical of the efficacy of these mandates. Clohessy contends, “We’re disappointed that the pope still refuses to simply tell church employees they must call the police. Any policy or pledge that still largely enables the Catholic hierarchy to handle crimes internally is doomed to continue both abuse and cover-up.”

The recent passage of bill SB 360 by the California Senate suggests that many lawmakers agree with Clohessy’s critique of the church’s ability to self-regulate. If this bill becomes law, priests who hear fellow priests or church employees confess sexual abuse – or suspect abuse based on the confession – would be required to disclose the information to law enforcement. But even this bill limits the scope of reporting requirements, excluding the confessions of congregants. And the bill faces opposition from within the Catholic Church itself. According to Mercury News, the California Catholic Conference objects to the proposed legislation, “arguing it will not help protect children and dangerously weaken religious freedom by ‘interjecting the government into the confessional.’” According to the bill’s author, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, there is no conflict between religious liberty and a law that requires priests to help protect children by reporting confessions of sexual abuse.

Our attorneys use civil law to hold perpetrators of sexual abuse – and the institutions that support them – accountable. If you or someone you know has been abused by a church official, please contact us today for a free consultation.

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