Reporters will need help from canon lawyers to correctly explain California’s confession bill

In this politically polarized world, there are issues that can drive a large wedge between people — including several that, one way or another, are tied to religion.

Immigration and abortion are two of the biggest in the Donald Trump era, issues that dominated the Supreme Court’s recently-completed term and the Democratic presidential primaries that are just underway. Then again, immigration and abortion are the issues that dominate news on the web and cable TV.

Religious freedom, an old-school liberal issue now largely taken up by conservatives, is often lost in mainstream news coverage. Lost in this coverage is an issue of such importance to Roman Catholics, that it may very well be the biggest fallout to come from years of clerical sex abuse when it comes to how it affects the law.

The California State Senate, controlled by Democrats, recently passed a bill (the first of its kind in the United States) that would compel a priest — violating centuries of Catholic law and tradition — to disclose to civil authorities any information learned in the confessional if it involves the sexual abuse of a minor committed by another priest or lay worker. The bill was supposed to head to the State Assembly later this summer, where Democrats hold a majority.

On Tuesday, on the eve of a scheduled hearing, State Sen. Jerry Hill withdrew the bill after realizing he didn’t have the votes to get it passed out of committee. Opponents may have rejoiced, but this issue is far from over. It certainly will gather steam again in future legislative sessions. That means reporters need to be better equipped to cover such an issue in a balanced and fair way.

If this bill doesn’t seem like a big deal, consider what it would have mandated: the government would have been allowed to control a religious sacrament by legally punishing a priest for not breaking the seal of confession. Passage of such a law would be a major violation of religious freedom for both the priest and the person in the confessional. It would also have a chilling effect for those seeking to go to confession, but fearing possible legal troubles.

Mainstream news coverage of this bill has been largely muted over the past few months. This bill hasn’t, for example, been made a bigger issue by national media outlets such as The New York Times. Compare that to the coverage on immigration and abortion. When the Times has covered the confessional issue, it has been through the posting of a Reuters story on July 1 under the headline: “Vatican defends confessional secret as sexual crisis abuse stings.”

That story mentioned the proposed California legislation in the eighth paragraph with the following: “In May, the California state senate passed a bill to require the seal of confession to be broken if a priests learns of or suspects sexual abuse while hearing the confession of a fellow priest or a colleague such as a Church worker.” 

There also has been a lack of good explainers — the preferred method of writing stories in the frenetic Internet age — about what the confessional means to Catholics.

Here’s a short primer: The Seal of Confession — also known as Seal of the Confessional — is the absolute duty of priests not to disclose anything that they learn from penitents during the course of the Sacrament of Penance. Even where the seal of confession does not strictly apply (where there is no specific serious sin confessed for the purpose of receiving absolution), priests have a serious obligation not to cause scandal by the way they speak, according to Catholic Encyclopedia

The seal dates back to the year 1215. Saint Thomas Aquinas devoted a section of Summa Theologiae to the seal of confession. In it, he explains that the seal may not be violated under any circumstances. As a result, priests are not allowed to reveal what they have learned during confession to anyone, even under the threat of their own death. For a priest to break this secrecy would lead to what is called latae sententiae, which triggers automatic excommunication by the pope. It’s the Catholic equivalent of attorney-client privilege.

This takes me to canon lawyers. Canon law is the legal system of the Catholic church and the one of the oldest legal systems in the world. Canon lawyers can explain the inner workings of the church and the norms that govern it. Here are a few resources for largely secular political reporters covering this issue to consider:

Canon Law Society of America

202-832-2350

https://clsa.org/

Canon Law Professionals

(518) 768-2507

http://www.canonlawprofessionals.com/

Canonical Aid

800-933-5193

https://www.canonicalaid.org/

A Slate.com feature on the bill from last month encapsulates some of the coverage we have seen over the past few weeks and the lens with which this issue is seen. This is how the piece opens:

The capital of California was named for a river that was in turn named for the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist. So it’s notable that last month state senators in Sacramento passed a bill that some say will force Catholic priests to violate a different Catholic sacrament: confession, also known as the sacrament of reconciliation.

Confession, as shown in a zillion pop cultural depictions, is a private conversation between a priest and an individual, meant to encourage Catholics to examine their consciences and request forgiveness from God. The format varies—for example, the two parties may sit face to face, or with an opaque screen between them—but the penitent is encouraged to offer a full inventory of her sins since her last visit. In return, the priest is bound by an ironclad oath of secrecy called the “seal of confession.”

Historically, American law has protected that seal, carving out a “clergy-penitent privilege” for the confessional that is similar to attorney-client privilege. But a bill making its way through the California state Legislature would ever-so-slightly crack the seal open. SB 360, which passed the state Senate in May, would require priests to report suspicions of child abuse obtained through confession in some circumstances. The bill is expected to be voted on by the lower house of the state Legislature in September, according to Catholic News Service. And many Catholics are not happy about it.

Let’s unpack this. The piece refers to “a zillion pop cultural depictions” as a way of trying to explain confession to non-Catholics. It does a poor job given that it doesn’t say anything.

This piece then makes the following premise:

These objections can be hard to understand, especially in the context of renewed awareness of the catastrophically widespread sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church. No one who objects to the bill would say they want to protect abusers. But it’s not just a human tradition, the argument goes; it’s a ritual instituted by God. And if priests are required to report suspicions of child abuse, then why not other serious crimes? Others raise practical concerns: What if a priest cannot identify the confessor because of the privacy screen between them?

This is the norm in the non-Catholic press that has covered this issue. Furthermore, the feature does interview a canon lawyer — but one that has a problem with church law.

But some Catholic thinkers say it is time to consider breaking the confessional seal. “Secrecy in the church is a major problem,” James Connell, a canon lawyer and a priest in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, told me. Connell sees a connection between Catholic resistance to the California bill and a broader culture of secrecy within the church. There’s “the pontifical secret,” a rule of confidentiality around a wide range of Vatican documents and communications. And then there’s the oath taken by new cardinals, who swear never to divulge any secrets that might dishonor the church. As critics see it, these are traditions that reflect cultural priorities of self-protection over transparency and truth.

Reporters need to consult canon lawyers for this issue and a host of others — and not just the ones who have a problem with centuries-old church tradition.

Please respect our Commenting Policy