Priests would be forced to chose between Church doctrine and state law, excommunication and incarceration.
A Dominican priest is speaking out against a California bill that, if passed, would require priests to violate the seal of confession in order to report suspected cases of child abuse or neglect to state authorities.
Fr. Pius Pietryzk, assistant professor of canon law at St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, California, warned that California State Senate Bill 360 could have ramifications that extend to all religions. He wrote in a USA Today op-ed:
“If a core principle as deeply ingrained in Catholic tradition and doctrine can be wiped away this easily by the state, no fundamental rights of religion or conscience are safe.”
It is estimated that there are more than 40 professions, clergy included, that are already compelled by state law to report suspicions of child abuse. The current law, however, allows an exception for “penitential communications,” such as confessions or other instances when the requirement of confidentiality is deeply rooted in religious doctrine.
Senator Jerry Hill, who introduced the bill earlier this year, seeks to do away with this exception. He stated in February:
“The law should apply equally to all professionals who have been designated as mandated reporters of these crimes — with no exceptions, period. The exemption for clergy only protects the abuser and places children at further risk.”
In his op-ed Father Pietryzk listed several problems with the enforcement of such a law, including his objection that it seems to be a way to “jail innocent priests.” He agreed that in practice, “there is no evidence that forcing priests to disclose cases of abuse learned of in the confessional would have prevented a single case of child abuse.”
Instead, he said, “There is every reason to believe the elimination of the privilege would mean that perpetrators would simply not bring it to confession.” This avoidance would restrict the possibility of repentance and would hold people back from penance, which all sinners must undertake for absolution.
It would also put the priest in an uncomfortable position in which they must choose between breaking a sacrament which they believe to be sacrosanct, risking excommunication, and disobeying the laws of man, risking imprisonment.
“I know priests all along the theological and ideological spectra, none of them would ever consider breaking the seal of the confessional.”
Father Pietryzk went on to explain that in the confessional, a priest is merely a tool for the Lord to work through:
“The Catholic Church holds that the information received by the priest in confession does not belong to him. It belongs to God alone. For that reason, a priest is absolutely — meaning there are no exceptions — forbidden from revealing the sins of a penitent.”
For nearly 2,000 years the Sacrament of Penance has been practiced, in one form or another, by Catholic faithful. In 1813, the New York Court of General Sessions stated, “To decide that the minister shall promulgate what he receives in confession, is to declare that there shall be no penance.”
In 1980, the Supreme Court determined:
“The priest-penitent privilege recognizes the human need to disclose to a spiritual counselor, in total and absolute confidence, what are believed to be flawed acts or thoughts and to receive priestly consolation and guidance in return.”
Father Pietryzk concluded that the Bill of Rights was intended to avoid such a situation as this. He suggests that the proposed law should alarm Americans of all faiths.