After Australia, for the first time a U.S. state introduces a bill that would force priests to report information on child abuse obtained in the confessional.
by PierLuigi Zoccatelli
On March 20, 1393, a Catholic priest called John Nepomucene was thrown from the Charles Bridge in Prague into the icy water of river Vitava, after having been arrested and tortured. He died almost immediately. The Catholic Church later proclaimed John a saint, a martyr who had died because he refused to reveal to King Wenceslaus IV the secrets he had learned in confession from his wife, Queen Sofia of Bavaria.
In history, it was not the only case. Catholic priests are taught that they should die rather than reveal what they learned in confession. Breaking the “confession seal,” even to save his own life, would lead to the priest being excommunicated.
The seal of confession was never popular with anti-Catholics, who suspected it was used to hide all sorts of dark secrets and conspiracies. With the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, politicians started to agitate and call for laws compelling priests to reveal what they had learned in confession about child abuse. Catholics objected that normally priests guilty of sexual abuse would not go to confession and tell other priests, and that at any rate breaking the seal of confession was unconceivable.
Following recommendations by the controversial Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, in Australia several states, including Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory, passed laws compelling priests to break the confession seal and report on children abuse. Catholic bishops in Australia unanimously reacted by instructing priests not to comply with the laws, and if necessary, go to jail.
Now for the first time a draft law compelling priests to break the seal of confession and report information they may have obtained on suspect or actual child abuse cases has been introduced in the United States. Earlier in Louisiana the State Supreme Court had ruled in 2014 that a priest may be jailed if he refuses to disclose information on sexual abuse obtained in confession, but after widespread controversy reversed the ruling in 2016. Now, it is North Dakota.
A bipartisan bill sponsored by state senators Judy Lee (R), Kathy Hogan (D), and Curt Kreun (R), and state representatives Mike Brandenburg (R) and Mary Schneider (D), was introduced last week. The current North Dakota law calls for mandatory reporting in cases of child abuse and neglect, with an exception that “a member of the clergy, however, is not required to report such circumstances if the knowledge or suspicion is derived from information received in the capacity of spiritual adviser.”
The bill would eliminate the exception, which does not protect Catholic priests only, and would expose priests who refuse to break the seal of confession to jail penalties. The Catholic Church, not surprisingly, is opposing the law, which seems to be strongly supported by several local media.
Christopher Dodson, the executive director and general counsel for the North Dakota Catholic Conference, told Catholic News Agency that he was “surprised and greatly concerned about the bill, because it would infringe upon a person’s privacy and religious counseling and confession, not just for Catholics, but for everyone.” “In the United States, we expect to exercise our religion, including going to confession and having spiritual counseling, without the government invading our privacy,” Dobson said.