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California Democratic lawmaker introduces bill to require clergy to break seal of confession to report child sex abuse


Some believe the system has been exploited by priests

Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images

A California lawmaker recently introduced a bill to require Catholic priests and other clergies to break the seal of confession to report child sex abuse.

Democratic state Sen. Jerry Hill announced Feb. 20 a bill that would amend the state's "mandated reporter" law that allows clergy to withhold knowledge of suspected child abuse when that information is obtained during "a penitential communication," the Sacramento Bee reported.

"Individuals who harm children or are suspected of harming children must be reported so a timely investigation by law enforcement can occur," Hill said in a statement.

What are the details?

Senate Bill 360 would eliminate the exception for members of the clergy who obtained knowledge of abuse during penitential communication, which is considered sacred in the Catholic Church.

There are 46 categories of professionals who are required by law to report when there is reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect. Doctors, police, therapists, teachers, and coaches are among those who are required to report.

"The law should apply equally to all professionals who have been designated as mandated reporters of these crimes — with no exceptions, period. The exemption for clergy only protects the abuser and places children at further risk," Hill said.

California law defines penitential communication as "a communication, intended to be in confidence, including, but not limited to, a sacramental confession, made to a clergy member who … has a duty to keep those communications secret."

"Any communication can be conceived as a penitential communication, if it is in an office or anyplace, as long as there's an understanding there it's privileged, it does not have to be reported," Hill told KPIX-TV.

Some believe the clergy exemption was exploited by those seeking to protect the Catholic Church.

"They've exploited a well-intentioned law to make it into their personal way of avoiding being truthful," said Dan McNevin, who is an area leader for the Survivor's Network for those Abused by Priests.

If a priest discussed his own sexual abuse with another priest, there was no reporting requirement, McNevin explained.

"It's just another way they keep up this society of secrecy where they protect each other," he added.

The Catholic Church plans to fight the legislation with its six lobbying arms and massive amounts of money, Hill said.

"We know we're in for a fight," Hill said. "But we're ready. And we're on the right side of the issue."

What did the California Catholic Conference say?

"Clergy are already mandatory reporters. We support that and would do nothing to change it. Inserting government into the Confessional does nothing to protect children and everything to erode the fundamental constitutional rights and liberties we enjoy as Americans. It's also why courts here and around the world respect the special nature of spiritual counseling," the California Catholic Conference told KPIX in a statement regarding the bill.

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