New California Bill Would Mandate Clergy Break Seal of Confession to Report Child Abuse

June 6, 2019 Updated: June 6, 2019

A California bill would end the exemption for clergy from a state law that mandates those who have knowledge of child sex abuse to report it to authorities, even if heard in confession.

The bill passed in the state Senate on May 23rd in a 30-4 vote, with 4 senators not voting. The vote was largely along party lines, with 27 Democrats and 3 Republicans voting in favor, while 4 Republicans voted against. The 4 senators not voting included 3 Republicans and 1 Democrat.

Currently in the state of California, doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, and others are considered “mandated child abuse and neglect reporters” and are legally obligated to break client privilege and report suspected child abuse and neglect, without exception. Members of the clergy also fall under this category, but an exception is given if knowledge is obtained during penitential communication, or confession.

California State Senator Jerry Hill’s (D-San Mateo) bill, Senate Bill 360, would end this exception.

While Sen. Hill was not available for comment, his office did provide The Epoch Times with the text of his speech on the Senate floor introducing his legislation.

In regards to the exception given to clergy on mandatory reporting, Hill stated, “SB 360 would begin to close [the] loophole by requiring clergy to report suspected child abuse or neglect, if they acquire the knowledge or suspicion during a penitential communication with an employee at their facility or with another clergy member.”

Hill pointed out that California is not the only state that has enacted this type of mandate for clergy, and he mentioned a number of other states that have done so. He claims the bill is constitutional.

“California would not be trailblazing with this measure. Connecticut, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia already have similar statutes. They operate under the same Constitution and Bill of Rights we do, and we have found no legal challenges to those statutes.”

A number of Catholic organizations statewide have stated their fierce opposition to this bill, noting that it would force priests to break the seal of confession, one of the most sacrosanct beliefs in Catholicism. It allows one to freely confess their sins to a clergy member without fear of that information being revealed. Now, the bill moving through the state legislature seeks to end that tradition on the grounds of ending the potential shielding of child sex abusers.

The Epoch Times spoke with Steven Pehanich, the Senior Director of Advocacy and Education for the California Catholic Conference (CCC) on the Catholic Church’s opposition to this proposed piece of legislation. The CCC is the official public policy advocacy organization for the Catholic Church in California.

“From the point of view of a civil society, it is a violation of the free exercise of religion. That has been something that has been [protected by law] in this country for centuries,” Pehanich explained.

“From the faith perspective, reconciliation is a moment to share between the penitent and God. The priest is just there as a representative. If the priest reveals any of that, he’ll be excommunicated. It’s very clear in church law.”

Pehanich told The Epoch Times that he believed that the bill wouldn’t hold up, stating it was an unconstitutional piece of legislation.

“I don’t think it’s constitutional. It may be enacted but I don’t think it will stand. If you take a look at case law on this, it’s been settled for so long.”

Pehanich said that while he believed there likely would be a legal battle over the legislation, it wouldn’t amount to much. “It’s clear settled law. You can have a legal battle on it, but, it won’t take very long because the law is clear.”

When asked as to whether there were any portions of Sen. Hill’s law that the Church would agree to or come to an agreement on, Pehanich said the Church was open to compromise.

He expressed that while forcing clergy to break the seal of confession was beyond where the church was willing to go, it was very much in favor of working with lawmakers and law enforcement in other ways to ensure that mandatory reporting is conducted properly in the state.

“We want good strong mandatory reporting laws for all of society. Strengthening the laws are important.”

With the Catholic Church arguing that the legislation is an unconstitutional violation of their first amendment rights, and Senator Hill arguing that that this legislation is constitutional and a necessary to protect children from abuse, a protracted legal battle is likely to happen.

SB360 is currently being reviewed in the State Assembly and is awaiting review for a floor vote. If passed and signed into law by Governor Newsom, it is expected to be challenged in the courts by faith groups.