The California ‘Confession Bill’ and How it Affects Religious Liberty

A bill working its way through the California state legislature could soon require Catholic priests to choose between violating the law or violating the seal of confession.

In the Catholic Church, priests have an absolute duty not to disclose anything they learn from penitents during the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This is called the ‘seal of confession,’ and priests are bound to uphold the seal or face excommunication.

However, in instances outside of confession, priests are designated as ‘mandated reporters’ and are legally required to report suspicion of child abuse or neglect to the proper authorities. There is currently an exemption in the law for any clergy member “who acquires knowledge or a reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect during a penitential communication.” California Senate Bill 360, currently being debated in the state legislature, would remove that exemption. The bill would require priests to disclose any information they receive, even if that knowledge was acquired in the confessional.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco stopped by Morning Air® this week, to discuss what this bill means for the Church and the state of religious liberty in America.

Speaking on Senate Bill 360, Archbishop Cordileone said, “I do find it quite shocking, because it is such a blatant violation of the First Amendment. The whole point of the First Amendment, and one of the foundational principles of this country, was to keep the government out of the church. And here, it’s just a blatant violation of the government intruding into the Church’s affairs. It is definitely a violation of religious liberty.”

The bill was drafted after a Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was released last summer, detailing the historical abuses of several dioceses in the state of Pennsylvania. Archbishop Cordileone acknowledged that the sins of the past are likely influencing perceptions of the present, without acknowledging the great strides that the Church has made in protecting minors and reducing incidents of abuse in recent years.

“This is unfortunately the misperception about what the situation actually is in the Church right now,” he said. “When you think about it, really, no one has done more to eradicate this problem of sex abuse of minors than the Catholic Church in the United States.”

Archbishop Cordileone shared that this bill presents not only a problem in California, but is indicative of a larger trend throughout society.

“To me, it is indicative of a deeper spiritual crisis in our society, which is a loss of the sense of the sacred,” he said. “It’s not very long ago that people would have a sense of the sacred. And so the seal of confession, respecting people’s way of worship, and respecting people’s house of worship were all things people kind of instinctively new were sacred and would never be violated. We’re seeing all of those being violated in our society. Not just by the government, but by these horrible attacks on houses of worship and disruptions of people’s worship services. That would have been unthinkable not too long ago.”

While religious liberty is being threatened due to a loss of the sense of the sacred, Archbishop Cordileone pointed out that priests have a sacred responsibility in hearing confessions – a duty that has eternal ramification.

“It’s not a matter of trying to shield child offenders,” he said. “It’s a way of giving people assurance within the context of the sacraments, so they can bring before God all that they have done that is offensive to God, that is sinful, and that they have no reservations doing that. This is a big concern, if people are afraid that what they say in confession might be known. This is sacred, we’re delving deep into people’s souls here. They have to know they they are protected so that they can have confidence to reveal all that is within their conscience and know that will be protected.”

Listen to the full conversation with Archbishop Cordileone below:

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