A Wisconsin state bill would remove the reporting exemption for Catholic priests, forcing them to break the seal of confession.
“Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the ‘sacramental seal,’ because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains ‘sealed’ by the sacrament.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church § 1467
Currently, Wisconsin state law requires mandatory reporting of suspected abuse for clergy members. However, an exemption is provided for “confidential communications made to him or her privately or in a confessional setting” if they have “a duty to keep those communications secret under the disciplines, tenets, or traditions of his or her religion.”
Introduced last Wednesday by Democrat state lawmakers Lena Taylor, Chris Taylor and Melissa Sargent, the Clergy Mandatory Reporters Act would end that exemption and force clergy to divulge what they learned in the confessional as it pertains to abuse. The trio called the Seal of Confession a “big loophole.”
The bill has been called “anti-Catholic” because it only removes the exemption for clergy, but not for attorney-client privilege or doctor-patient confidentiality. President of the Catholic League Bill Donohue asked in a statement:
“Why are Catholic priests being singled out? This is religious profiling. Indeed, the bill is manifestly anti-Catholic.”
Donohue criticized the trio for their lack of evidence that the bill would have any benefit in stopping abuse, saying the “idea of having the government police the details of a Catholic sacrament is draconian.”
“The sponsors of the bill have provided no evidence that this bill would remedy anything. Indeed, they cannot cite one case of sexual abuse that would have been reported to the authorities had the religious exemption for the confessional not existed.”
Director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference Kim Vercauteren decried the attack on the Seal of Confession, calling it a “core tenet of our faith.”
“If you look at our teaching, confession is ultimately between the person and God, and the priest acts as an intermediary in that relationship. The need for secrecy and to be able to candid in that circumstance is kind of the whole premise behind confession that this is the opportunity to completely unburden your soul. Obviously we want to do what we can to help victim-survivors or anyone who may fall victim or prey to sexual abuse, to do what we can to protect them.”
According to the Code of Canon Law, a priest who intentionally violates the seal is automatically excommunicated.
“The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” – Code of Canon Law 983 § 1.
A similar bill was introduced in California but pulled in July over 1st Amendment concerns and questions of how the proposed law would be enforced if passed. The deadline for legislators to add their names as sponsors on the bill ends later this month on the 21st, until then the bill cannot be introduced to the legislature and put to a vote.