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California confession bill passes state senate

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John Burger - published on 05/25/19 - updated on 05/27/19

SB 360 must now be taken up by the assembly

In spite of protests that new legislation would be infringing upon religious liberty, the California state senate has overwhelmingly approved of a bill that would require Catholic priests to break the sacramental seal of confession.

The Senate on Friday voted 30-2 on Senate Bill 360, which would oblige priests to disclose information concerning the sexual abuse of minors that they hear in confession. The legislation now will be taken up by the state assembly.

“I am deeply disappointed with today’s Senate vote on SB 360, said Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez. “I continue to believe we can strengthen mandated reporting laws to protect children’s safety while at the same time preserving the sanctity of penitential communications.”

Priests are already mandated reporters—required to report cases of sexual abuse that they suspect, unless they hear about it in the confessional. California state Senator Jerry Hill wanted to eliminate that exception altogether. The bill he introduced has since been amended, requiring reporting if a priest learns about or suspects child abuse from hearing a confession of a fellow priest or co-worker. The bill no longer requires priests to report knowledge or suspicion of child abuse from hearing the confession of any penitent.

But that is “still an unacceptable intrusion by government into a sacred sacrament of the Catholic Church,” said Bill Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. In a statement, Donohue called SB 360 a “frontal assault on religious freedom.”

“We stand with Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez in calling on California’s government to strengthen mandatory reporting requirements while respecting the sanctity of penitential communications.”

Donohue predicted that the legislation would be unenforceable. “No priest is going to respect it and violate the sanctity of the confessional,” he said. “Moreover, Catholics are not required to respect unjust laws—and this is a clear example of such a law.”

Confession is sacrosanct, according to Catholic teaching, because it is communication between the penitent and God. According to Church law, a priest is automatically excommunicated if he reveals the contents of a confession.

“In the context of Confession, the priest, we hold, is operating in the very person of Christ, and therefore, the penitent is speaking to and hearing from the Lord himself,” Archbishop Gomez said earlier. “Thus, absolutely nothing ought to stand in the way of a sinner who seeks this font of grace.”

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Confession
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