Delaware and Vermont lawmakers proposed a bill that would remove the Catholic Church's "seal of confession" legal protections. If passed, the legislation would prohibit priests from withholding members' private information under certain circumstances.
Legislation introduced by Democratic lawmakers Delaware state Rep. Eric Morrison and Vermont state Sen. Richard Sears, Delaware HB 74 and Vermont Senate Bill 16, would remove priests' right to a privileged conversation during confessionals if the member reveals information about child abuse or neglect.
"It requires priests to report child abuse and neglect or to give or accept evidence in a judicial proceeding relating to child abuse or neglect," the Delaware legislation states.
The bill's advocates believe it would help prevent abuse. However, opponents argue it would only strip churches of their First Amendment rights and create a slippery slope for religious freedoms.
President of Catholic Action for Faith and Family Thomas McKenna told the Daily Caller News Foundation, "This is not the first time this has come up."
"But what is at stake here is the real persecution of our Catholic faith because confession is not a therapy session … discussion, or therapy group, because when a person comes to confession the priest is acting in the person of Christ. This would be a persecution of the Catholic church because a priest would go to jail before they would reveal someone's sins," McKenna stated.
Earlier this month, Senate Bill 16 failed to meet a committee deadline due to "constitutional concerns," Sears told the nonprofit news organization VTDigger. Therefore, the bill is currently shelved, but Sears stated, "It'd be dead for this year but it wouldn't be dead for next year."
Morrison claimed that the legislation is "in the best interests of our children" and that "all Delawareans should be mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect."
The Wilmington Diocese explained that the bill's requirements would be "nearly impossible to meet" since almost all sacramental confessions are anonymous, the Catholic News Agency reported.
"The sacrament of confession and its seal of confession is a fundamental aspect of the Church's sacramental theology and practice. It is nonnegotiable," said the Wilmington Diocese. "No Catholic priest or bishop would ever break the seal of confession under any circumstances."
The diocese stated that priests who break the seal of confession are automatically excommunicated.
Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, spoke against the bill before a Senate Judiciary Committee in March.
"There is no question that protecting children is essential and criminals must be held accountable for their crimes. But disregarding fundamental religious rights is unnecessary," Coyne said.
"The priest has a sacred duty to maintain the secrecy of sacramental confession," he added.
"Today, the president of the United States could go to confession to a priest and the priest would not have to worry about being subpoenaed by Congress to expose what was said."
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