By Courtney Grogan
A California bill that would have required priests to violate the seal of confession has been withdrawn by its sponsor the day before it was to be debated in committee.
California Senate Bill 360 was removed Monday from the agenda for a meeting of the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee scheduled for July 9. The decision by the bill’s sponsor, state Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), came just hours after the Public Safety Committee released a report on the bill July 8. That report raised a number of First Amendment concerns with the proposed legislation.
The bill, which passed the state senate in May by a wide margin, would have required a member of the clergy to violate the seal in some circumstances, if they learned about child abuse while hearing the confessions of other priests or Church officials.
In addition to religious liberty objections, many – including the Public Safety Committee report – noted that the bill would be almost impossible to enforce. Hill’s decision to drop the measure also followed widespread public opposition to the proposed law. Over 100,000 Catholics sent letters voicing their opposition to SB 360. After the senate vote in May, Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland issued a statement saying that neither he nor any of his priests would abide by the law if it came into effect.
“I will go to jail before I will obey this attack on our religious freedom,” wrote Barber in May. “Even if this bill passes, no priest may obey it.
The California Catholic Conference put out a statement Monday welcoming the withdrawal of the bill as a victory for religious freedom.
“This outcome is good for the Catholic people of California and for believers of all faiths, not only in this state but across the country,” said Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles in a statement.
“SB 360 was a dangerous piece of legislation. It was a threat to the sacrament of confession that would have denied the right to confidential confessions to priests and tens of thousands of Catholics who work with priests in parishes and other Church agencies and ministries,” he added.
Gomez thanked those who worked against the bill, including the “many faith leaders” from around the United States.
“It is a beautiful thing to stand together with our brothers and sisters in the apostolic churches of the Catholic and Orthodox East, with Baptists and Pentecostals, Anglicans and Lutherans, Muslims and Jews, and the Church of Latter Day Saints,” he said.
Hill had previously claimed that “the clergy-penitent privilege has been abused on a large scale, resulting in the unreported and systemic abuse of thousands of children across multiple denominations and faiths.”
The senator also claimed that such abuse had been revealed through “recent investigations by 14 attorneys general, the federal government, and other countries.”
Despite recent investigations into the clerical sexual abuse crisis in different countries and jurisdictions, no data exists establishing or indicating the use of sacramental confession either to facilitate or perpetuate the sexual abuse of minors.
Per canon law, priests who violate the seal of confession by sharing anything learned within the sacramental context to anyone, at any time, for any reason is subject to automatic excommunication and and further punishments, including loss of the clerical state.
On July 1, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, head of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary (which handles cases related to the seal of confession) issued a document underlining the “intrinsic requirement” of total secrecy regarding the sacrament of confession. The document as widely received as a response to efforts by governments in California and other jurisdictions to attack the sacramental seal.