California State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) sponsors a bill to jail Catholic priests for not reporting to the state authorities the confessions of those who abuse children and the parents who neglect them. Priests who refuse to violate the confidentiality of penitents face a year in prison and a $5,000 fine.
St. Matthew, not to mention the Catholic missionaries who established an outpost in San Mateo in the 18th century, do not approve.
Hill supporting a decade ago the turning of the birthday of Harvey Milk, who started a long-term relationship with a sixteen-year-old runaway during the 1960s, into a state holiday celebrated in public schools makes the intent of the current legislation seem less about punishing child predators than about punishing the Catholic Church. Indeed, Hill periodically calls for audits and investigations of Catholic and Christian groups for various reasons, including a charity that instructed on medication that reverses the effects of abortifacient pills and private schools that include morality clauses in the contracts of teachers.
“The sacramental seal is inviolable,” church law states. “[T]herefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.”
Even under threat of death, ordained priests, the church commands, must stay faithful to this trust.
Don’t fret, Father Flanagan, the cardinal never need discover your violation of this sacrosanct tenet of the church. Hill’s bill ironically promises confidentiality to priests who violate the Seal of the Confessional.
“No agency or person listed in this subdivision shall disclose the identity of any person who reports under this article to that person’s employer, except with the employee’s consent or by court order,” the bill reads. So who knows? The exceptions include prosecutors, law enforcement and social services “receiving or investigating mandated reports,” and the courts.
Trust the agents of Gavin Newsom, superior to the agents of God, in keeping secrets. And, in fact, the bill makes priests agents of the state.
“Free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference are guaranteed,” reads the California constitution, which puts it at odds with the legislation. Above and beyond the legal issues exist spiritual ones. Such a requirement chills something required of sinners — penance — in the Catholic Church. This ritual empowers believers to reflect and change. The act of contrition, apart from saying an Act of Contrition, helps us acknowledge right and wrong, humbles us, and compels us through conscience to mend our ways. Do we really want to suppress something so socially adaptive and spiritually rejuvenating? Priests, it seems, already save the state tax dollars in funding policemen.
Though everyone, save for perhaps child abusers, wants more reporting, it seems clear that this law would not bring this desired state about. Assuming that child abusers strike as exactly the type of people who frequent confessional boxes, they certainly will not confess their crimes to a priest once a promulgated law informs them that those revelations go straight to the police. What’s the point, then, other than to harass Catholics?
Instead of rounding up pedophiles and child beaters, the legislation withers the freedom to practice one’s faith. And what of enforcement? Bugging the confessional box? Policemen going undercover as priests? The legislation reads more Benny Hill than Jerry Hill.
In an age of traffic-light paparazzi, spying Siri, and social media tracking our every mistake and misdeed, a few square feet of space providing confidentiality for our deepest secrets seems more refreshing, and necessary, than ever.
If Sacramento refuses to respect the sacraments, who will?