Church Community Says California Bill Violates Confessional Tradition

June 3, 2019 Updated: June 3, 2019

SACRAMENTO—California Sen. Jerry Hill recently introduced Senate Bill (SB) 360, which is drawing criticism from some local members of the religious community. The bill will affect all clergy members, including pastors and priests.

According to the bill text, the legislation plans to amend clergy-penitent privileges by mandating clergy members report any suspicions of child abuse or neglect communicated to them by church attendees “during a penitential communication.”

The bill considers penitential communication to include confessions communicated orally in private to a clergy member as a matter of conscience. The bill text specifies that these actions are understood to place “the clergy member specifically and strictly under a level of confidentiality that is considered inviolate by church doctrine.”

However, the bill further states that clergy members who fail to report suspicions of abuse “within 36 hours of receiving the information” are subject to a fine of $1,000 or six months of jail time.

While the bill appears to aim to increase reporting of child abuse and neglect, supporters of church tradition are voicing their concerns.

“The current law allows ministers to not be reporters of child abuse and neglect [confessed during penitential communication], so this [bill] would take away that right,” said Kevin Snider, chief counsel for the Pacific Justice Institute, to The Epoch Times.

Part of the issue is the definition of abuse and what the California state law defines as abuse. In California, that could include emotional abuse, according to Snider.

“This is the problem, it’s that the abuse in California includes emotional abuse. Well, what does that mean? Anytime that someone thinks that a child is endangered of their emotional health? Well, if you have a child, you know that there were often times heated conflicts when they become teenagers.”

If the child or a parent discloses the conflict with a clergy member, the information would have to be reported to the authorities.

On May 9, the Department of Education approved of a revised health education guideline that adds “spiritual abuse” as part of the definition of abuse. The revision would apply to the definition of abuse included in SB 360.

According to the guidelines, under current California state law, the following is considered abuse: using religion to justify abuse; forcing others to adhere to rigid gender roles; forcing partner to do things against their beliefs; mocking beliefs or cultural practices; and not allowing partner to do things they enjoy or to better themselves, including interfering with their education.

Under these guidelines, the role of pastors, youth pastors, chaplains, and counselors within churches and ministries could be affected, opponents say.

Clergy-Penitent Privileges

Snider believes the main concern of SB 360 is the attempt to undo the church tradition of confidential confessions as a means of seeking help and repenting for a person’s sins.

“What [Hill] wants to do is to remove this right of ministers to keep secrets. And if he can remove the rights of ministers, why couldn’t you remove the rights of attorneys, and how could you ever defend someone in court if [attorneys] had to testify what their client tells them?” Snider said.

From a historical standpoint, the practice of penitence and the disclosure of sins date back thousands of years to early Christianity.

The Epoch Times received a copy of a letter to Hill from the Pacific Justice Institute regarding this issue. The letter explains that the private practice of penance was central to the tradition of churches, and that “communication made to a priest during confession cannot be subject to disclosure.”

As such, another concern regarding SB 360 is the impact it will have on the relationship between clergy members and church attendees.

Rev. Dan Prout, president of Sierra Ministries International, told The Epoch Times that the bill might deter church attendees from having difficult discussions with clergy members.

“That will immediately bring a close to families, parents, individuals feeling free to even bring up problems they are having in their homes,” Prout said.

According to the Catholic Canon 983  Section 1, “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.”

“The covert impact is that it will erode parental discipline and guidance in the home,” Prout said.

The bill is currently making its way through the California state legislature. SB 360 was first introduced on Feb. 20 and has passed the state Senate. It’s now been sent to the Assembly.