Editorial: Church, state and the seal of confession

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Father Timothy J. Mockaitis, pastor of Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Salem, Ore., and penitent Ethan K. Alano of Salem demonstrate how a confession is conducted May 3, 2019. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

New laws passed in the state of Victoria, Australia, and nearby Tasmania mean that a priest within those jurisdictions can now be sentenced to time behind bars should he fail to report suspicions of child sexual abuse that come to light during the Sacrament of Confesssion.

Premier Daniel Andrews of Victoria said the law was meant to send a message straight to Rome. “The most important thing is to send a message that the law is to be taken seriously, if people don’t obey the law, then the penalties are very significant,” the premier said, according to Australian newspaper, The Age.

Following the parliamentary vote, Child Protection Minister Luke Donnellan said: “The special treatment for churches has ended and child abuse must be reported.”

In a statement when the bill in Tasmania was passed in July, Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart explained the tension that exists between church and state.

“Priests and all who work for the Church understand their obligations before the law to report on matters of child sexual abuse. Priests, however, cannot comply with law that would require them to violate their commitment to the Church’s consistent teaching on the inviolability of the sacramental seal,” Archbishop Porteous wrote. “It is important to note that governments throughout history have sought to force priests to break the seal of the confessional for some particular reason or other. Several priests have been martyred for refusing to betray the promise they made before God to uphold the seal of the confessional.”

He went on: “Governments can give all sorts of justifications for wanting to know what has been confessed to a priest, from the most noble (the protection of innocent human life) to the most base (the maintenance of political power). But the reality is that saints, like St. Mateo Correa Magallanes and St. John Nepomucene, who gave their lives defending the seal of the confessional, knew that no matter what the reason was given by the government, no matter how noble their intentions, breaking the seal of the confessional would constitute the end of the sacrament. If one priest was to break it, the faithful would lose confidence that what they confess could be made public or used against them.”

There can be no doubt that the Church is fully on board with reporting cases of clergy sexual abuse, as worldwide reforms have been ongoing for years. But when it comes to the Sacrament of Confession, Church law trumps that of the state. Regardless of the passage of any governmental legislation, breaking the seal of confession is simply not an option for a priest. Those who violate the seal of confession, according to canon law, receive an automatic excommunication that can be lifted only by the pope.

So why is a law halfway around the world being brought to attention by Our Sunday Visitor? Very simply because if it happened there, it can happen here.

Just this year, Church leaders in California spent much time and effort opposing SB 360, a proposed piece of legislation that would require clergy of all faiths to be mandated reporters — that is, to share suspicions of child abuse or neglect with police no matter the circumstances in which they learned about the abuse, including during private counseling or the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

In June, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles encouraged all members of the archdiocese to vocally oppose the bill.

“As we all know, it is a great feeling to be able to speak to Jesus with total freedom and complete honesty in the confessional,” he wrote in a statement read at all Masses. “We tell of our love for him; we express sorrow for our sins, and our sincere intent not to commit these sins again. We accept the penance that is given to us; we receive spiritual guidance and encouragement. And through the ministry of the priest, Jesus speaks to us personally, with words that set us free: ‘I absolve you of your sins.’

“Everything about this beautiful relationship depends on the divine assurance that what we say to Jesus in this sacrament will remain private and confidential,” he continued. “We cannot allow the government to enter into our confessionals to dictate the terms of our personal relationship with Jesus.”

SB 360 ended up being withdrawn in July after the assembly’s Public Safety Committee noted the many First Amendment concerns that came with it — and rightly so. Such a law would be a direct attack on the very fundamental, protected right to freedom of religion in this country.

But the Church needs to be vigilant. What was tried once assuredly will be tried again.

Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young

Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board

The Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board consists of Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, Gretchen R. Crowe, Matthew Kirby, Scott P. Richert and York Young.