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Legislators Advocate for Laws Requiring Abuse Reports by Priests After Confession

State legislators are advocating for laws requiring priests to report instances of abuse that they hear about in the confessional.

The lawmakers contend that such laws are necessary to protect vulnerable individuals, particularly children, from harm. They argue that the sanctity of the confessional should not be used to shield abusers from accountability for their actions. The push for mandatory reporting has been met with opposition from some religious leaders, who argue that it violates the principle of confidentiality between priests and their congregants. They assert that the confessional is a sacred space where individuals can seek forgiveness without fear of retribution.

“It’s almost as though it is a pass for priests,” said Michael McDonnell, spokesperson for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “We hope politicians in every state would be encouraged to produce some legislation that would further safeguard children from any unnecessary damage.” 

Lawmakers in Vermont, Delaware, Washington, amidst other states, have proposed the removal of the exemption in mandatory reporter laws described as “clergy-penitent privilege.” This is like the attorney-client privilege that prevents information in a pastoral conversation from being acknowledged in court, irrespective of the severity of the information, even if it were child abuse. However, catholic leaders are working to keep the norms in place. “Requiring clergy members to report child abuse learned during a penitential communication would infringe First Amendment rights of all Catholics in the state of Vermont, not just clergy,” Bishop Christopher Coyne of the Diocese of Burlington said in recent statement before members of the Vermont state Senate.

Earlier, the Diocese of Wilmington in Delaware had published a statement describing the seal of clergy-penitent privilege as “non-negotiable”. The statement said breaking the seal of confession would “incur an automatic excommunication that could only be pardoned by the Pope himself.”

In February, a bill mandating clery reporters was brought to the Washington State Senate with the confession carved out. Here, some lawmakers had pushed for the removal of the exemption. According to Religion News, a  statement from Washington State Catholic Conference cleared that clery have a duty to report any case of child abuse “everywhere else but the confessional”. 

“When priests and bishops learn about child abuse, they can and should report it to the authorities. But when someone reveals their sins to God in confession, that is a sacred matter that priests must never disclose,” read the WSCC’s statement.

The debate over mandatory reporting is not a new one, but it has taken on renewed urgency in the wake of recent revelations of widespread abuse within the Catholic Church. Advocates for change believe that requiring priests to report abuse could help prevent future instances of harm and provide justice for survivors.

It remains to be seen whether any legislation mandating reporting will be enacted, and if so, how it will be enforced. However, the debate over the issue is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

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