Anyone who has ever confessed to something they were utterly embarrassed and/or ashamed of doing knows just how difficult it can be to walk into the confessional to face a priest. Knowing the priest is serving as Christ in his role of confessor does not make the task any easier. What does help is remembering that incredible feeling after confession when you know God has forgiven you and the priest provides a penance that puts you back on the right path.
A proposed state law would interrupt that sacred moment in a manner that could permanently destroy the relationship between our priests and ourselves in the confessional, without furthering the stated goal of the legislation.
HB90 by State Rep. Angela Romero (D-Salt Lake City) repeals the exemption from child abuse and neglect reporting requirements for clergy within the confessional, making it a crime for the priest to maintain the Seal of Confession. The motivation for the bill is understandable, to uncover and stop the abuse of children, but HB90 will not have this intended effect.
Confession and Penance are central to the practice of our Catholic faith, dating back two millennia. Confession to Catholics is our opportunity to reveal our conscience to God, through the priest who embodies Christ in this moment of grace. The sacrament helps us prepare to receive the Eucharist and to participate fully in our faith.
Nor are we alone in viewing the private disclosure of wrongdoing as a path to God. The Orthodox Church also practices the Sacrament of Holy Confession. The Church of England recognizes the inviolability of an act of confession. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints views confidential admissions of wrongdoing as an essential part of the repentance process. American Baptist churches, Presbyterian Church USA and Lutheran churches all recognize the pastoral imperative of confidentiality when congregants seek counseling and care from their spiritual leaders.
For a Catholic priest, revealing the contents of a person’s confession is a mortal sin and grounds for automatic excommunication. In the past, priests have been tortured and given their lives rather than break their solemn vow to protect the Seal of Confession. This isn’t just a convenient means of maintaining confidentiality, it is a sacred duty and thus critical to the free exercise of our religion. HB90 places a Catholic priest in the untenable position of violating state law and facing criminal penalties, or violating Canon law and facing excommunication.
Proponents of the bill suggest that clergy hear about abuse regularly and do nothing. The reality is that the certainty of confidentiality and the knowledge that Confession is a sacred conversation with God encourages Catholics to seek out and receive God’s mercy and to undertake reconciliation not only with God but also with their communities and victims. A priest hearing the confession of criminal wrongdoing may require the penitent to self-report to law enforcement, seek counseling, offer to talk with the person outside of the confessional and accompany him or her in the act of self-reporting, or require some other similar act of restorative justice through penance.
The U.S. Supreme Court recognized the value of confession in 1980: “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.” 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. On the other hand, there is every reason to believe the elimination of the privilege would mean that perpetrators would simply not bring it to confession.
The Diocese of Salt Lake City urges Utah Catholics to contact your state legislators and ask them to oppose this bill that forces individuals to choose between the most sacrosanct part of their religious beliefs and imprisonment – the very situation the First Amendment was meant to protect against. We must resist the intrusion of civil authorities into the sacred domain of personal conscience and religious practice. HB90 is a bad law that does nothing to protect children and undermines the very real possibility that a sex offender might repent, thus allowing the priest to counsel him/her to seek help from police and trained personnel, making the world a bit safer for vulnerable children.
Jean Hill is the Diocese of Salt Lake City’s government liaison and director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.