California ‘Confession Bill’ Withdrawn

A bill in California that could have forced Catholic priests to choose between violating the law and violating the seal of confession was withdrawn by its sponsor the day before it was to be debated in the committee.

Senate Bill 360, the so-called Confession Bill, would have required priests to report suspicion of child abuse or neglect, even if that knowledge was acquired during the sacrament of confession. 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.

However, 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. Senate Bill 360 sought to eliminate the priest-penitent privilege and require priests to violate the seal of confession.

The bill’s sponsor, state Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), withdrew the bill on July 8, the day before it was scheduled to be debated on July 9. Many Catholics from across the state were organizing a gathering in Sacramento on July 9 to protest the bill and the dangers it posed to religious freedom.

Morning Air® host John Harper reported, “Some 120,000 letters, e-mails, and phone calls from Catholics, and others who were concerned about freedom of expression and freedom of religion, bombarded the lawmakers in Sacramento. Thanks be to God, they have at least tabled that for now.”

Monsignor Stuart Swetland, host of Go Ask Your Father™ and Chief Religion Correspondent for Relevant Radio®, stopped by Morning Air to discuss the withdrawal of this controversial bill.

“We have to give a shout-out to the bishops of California who really focused the people on telling their their legislators what a dangerous piece of legislation this was,” Msgr. Swetland said. “Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles said that Senate Bill 360 was a dangerous piece of legislation, and indeed it was. He went on to say if any legislation can force believers to reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings shared with God in Confession, then truly there is no area of human life that is free or safe from government.”

Though Senate Bill 360 was particularly directed at Catholic priests, people of various religious backgrounds joined the effort to oppose the bill, due to their concerns about First Amendment violations.

Msgr. Swetland pointed out, “I think wise people of all kinds of faith, and even some who do not have the gift of faith at all, saw the threat that this legislation imposed. Because it was the government trying to get the proverbial first step into the very inner sanctum of people’s conscience.”

The history of the Catholic Church has many examples of holy men and women who were persecuted for refusing to follow unjust or immoral laws. Though many priests in California asserted that they would rather go to jail than violate the seal of confession, for now they do not have to fear that choice.

“There are places that the government cannot go,” Msgr. Swetland said. “It has not the competence. And, of course, we see this now looking backwards very clearly in Jesus’ teaching about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. but unto God what is God’s. Meaning that there is an appropriate role for the State, but there’s also the absolute role for God, and that has to be respected first.”

Listen to the conversation below:

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Stephanie Foley serves as a Digital Media Producer at Relevant Radio®. She is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where she studied journalism, and she has worked in Catholic radio for 12 years. Stephanie is a wife, a mother of three boys, and in her free time she enjoys reading, running, and really good coffee. You can find more of Stephanie’s writing at and on the free Relevant Radio mobile app.