In Small Win for Church Community, California Senator Puts SB 360 On Hold

By Cynthia Cai
Cynthia Cai
Cynthia Cai
July 25, 2019 Updated: July 25, 2019

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—California State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties) announced that he is placing Senate Bill 360 on hold for the time being.

The passing of SB 360 would have required church clergy to report any suspicions or incidents of child abuse or neglect.

In a news release published on July 9, Senator Hill stated, “Senate Bill 360 has one purpose only, not to restrict faith, but to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable of the faithful: children.”

Due to the opposition surrounding the bill, the bill is currently paused in progressing through the California legislature.

“This issue remains important to me, and I will continue to champion it in the hope that my colleagues can come together on legislation. 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. To be clear, I have placed SB 360 on hold. The bill is on pause; it has not been withdrawn,” Senator Hill stated.

Brad Dacus, an attorney at Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), said: “We at PJI are very relieved to see this withheld. We’re also very cautious knowing that the reasons this bill was withheld are not likely going to prevent it from being resubmitted, revised or resubmitted in the future.”

The main concern with SB 360 was its violation of penitential communication, a tradition in which people can confess their sins to church clergy in hopes of receiving help and forgiveness.

According to a PJI press release, PJI sent a lengthy legal opinion letter to all the California Assembly members, urging legislators to oppose SB 360.

PJI noted in its letter: “Despite the amendments to the Bill that eliminate certain categories of people from reporting requirements, the average priest remains in danger of finding himself in situations where he must forsake his religious duties in order to avoid violating the laws of the State.”

According to the bill text, SB 360 originally intended for church clergy to become reporters of child abuse suspicions. Failure to report such cases or suspicions within 36 hours would have resulted in 6 months of jail time, a fine of $1,000, or both.

Dacus said that the bill would be a violation of people’s right to religious beliefs and practices. SB 360 would also be in conflict with church traditions and laws.

Catholic Canon 983 Section 1 states: “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.”

As such, SB 360 would be in direct violation of the Catholic Canon Law, which sets the guidelines and regulations surrounding penitence and sin confession.

“This proposed law could not be reconciled with the First Amendment,” PJI attorney Kevin Snider was quoted in the press release as saying. “SB 360 was an attempt to sweep away centuries of clergy-penitent protections, forcing clergy members to choose between criminal prosecution or spiritual peril.”

Dacus said that a minister’s job is to oversee “repentance and transformation” of churchgoers. Conflict arises when ministers and other clergy members are being asked by law to become mandated reporters.

However, PJI stated that Hill’s recent reversal to place the bill on hold is a step in the right direction.

While it is unclear whether SB 360 or a bill similar to it may make a comeback in the future, members of the church community have expressed hope that the California legislature will continue to listen to its constituents and respect people’s rights and traditions.

Dacus concluded by noting that people can visit PJI’s websitefor future updates on this bill and other legal issues that affect the public.

Cynthia Cai