SB 360 is a California bill seeking to strengthen mandatory reporting requirements for child abuse and neglect. The bill’s author believes that to do so, the sanctity of the sacrament of Confession must be broken and priests forced into reporting certain sins heard in confessions.
SB 360 originally sought to compel priests to reveal confessions of child abuse or neglect in all situations. Through the California Catholic Conference and local legislative efforts, the bill was amended to create a protected right to privacy for penitential communications made in the sacrament of Confession. The bill now names two groups of people, namely priests and any lay person employed at the same site as a clergy member, as no longer protected under this right to privacy during the sacrament of Confession.
SB 360 was authored in the California Senate and passed through committees and a full vote of the Senate. During that process, the California Catholic Conference worked with the bill’s author and other legislators to offer amendments that would strengthen and clarify child abuse reporting requirements, while also protecting the sacred privacy of the sacrament of Confession. Some of these amendments were accepted. Now SB 360 has stronger reporting requirements, which we ardently support. At the same time, the bill added language to deny the religious freedom of Catholics by violating the sanctity ofConfessions from priests and lay people who work at the same location. It has now gone to the Assembly, where it will be heard in committee. If it passes there, it will be eligible for a vote of the entire Assembly by late summer. If SB 360 passes both houses, it will head to the Governor’s desk for signature or veto.
There is much we, the Diocese of San Jose, agree with in SB 360. The bill seeks to strengthen reporting requirements for child abuse and neglect. Some of the language adopted in the amendment to SB 360 was written by the California Catholic Conference. Also, the first part of the amendment created a protected right to privacy for the sacrament of Confession. However, the amendment went on to create an exception to this right for two groups of people — priests and lay people who work at the same location. SB 360 would add language to the penal code. Rather than creating clarity, this exception creates a grey area. No one signs in or is required to state their name for the sacrament, so this reporting requirement is largely unenforceable. Instead, we support strong and clear reporting requirements that will protect children and retain the sanctity of our sacraments.
SB 360 seeks to strengthen reporting requirements for child abuse and neglect. The bill’s author believes this can only be done by violating ‘the seal” of the sacrament of Confession. There is no evidence to the claim that forcing priests to break the seal of Confession will protect even one child. Hearings on the bill have not presented a single case — in California or anywhere else — where sexual abuse of child could have been prevented if a priest had disclosed information he had heard in Confession. Instead, there is strong evidence that training priests, teachers, parents, and children to recognize suspicious behavior, report any and all instances of abuse and neglect, and to prioritize the safety of children is resulting in the dramatic increase of safe spaces for children and families.
In California, there are 46 classes of mandatory reporters. California’s Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act was amended in 1997 to add members of the clergy to the list of mandated reporters. Priests are mandated reporters when they are in personnel meetings, counseling, on retreats and during spiritual direction, and every other moment, except for the short time during the sacrament of Confession, as are other kinds of privileged conversations, among them those covered by the attorney-client privilege.
At any given time on our parish and school campuses, there may be dozens of mandatory reporters, including teachers, nurses and doctors, counselors and therapists, and others who work in public professions. The reporting requirements and protections for clergy members are identical to the requirements and protections for other mandated reporters, except for the provision exempting suspicions of child maltreatment acquired during a “penitential communication” from the mandate to report. Working together to be vigilant and keep children safe, our Catholic community supports safe environments for all children and families.
In California, penitential communications are exempt from the requirement to report suspected abuse or neglect, as are other kinds of privileged conversations, among them those covered by the attorney-client privilege. However, this does not modify or limit a clergy member’s duty to report known or suspected child abuse or neglect when the clergy member is acting in some other capacity that would otherwise make the clergy member a mandated reporter.
• What is the protocol for clergy when a confession is made of child sexual abuse during the Sacrament of Reconciliation?
If penitents report being a victim of abuse, they are generally asked to discuss the matter with the priest-confessor immediately after a Confession has ended – outside the Seal of Confession. When such conversations take place after confession, clergy members in California are already required by law to report them. The same approach would be conducted if a penitent confessed the abuse of a child. In either instance, an earnest effort is made to encourage disclosure outside of the Seal of Confession or to another mandated reporter.
Priests or laypersons who commit the crime of child abuse do not come to other priests in confession to reveal their crimes. Due to the nature of child abuse, it is more likely that a disclosure of abuse will be made by a child or family member seeking assistance than by the suspect’s voluntary confession. In these situations, though confidentiality is still a concern, the communication may not fall under the exemption provided by the clergy-penitent privilege.
The Catholic Church in California is by far the most progressive and comprehensive of any other employer at training children and adults to remain safe and report suspicious behavior. We take every opportunity to create safe environments for children and families. All ministry operations prioritize the safety of children.
The Diocese of San Jose has a Safe Environment Program and policies and procedures to prevent and recognize signs of sexual abuse of children. Diocese of San Jose has completed more than 50,000 background checks on diocesan bishops, priests, deacons, employees, and volunteers, who have contact with children in any capacity. Approximately 52,500 adults in Diocese of San Jose have been trained since 2002 to recognize and report child abuse – with required recertification training every three years for diocesan bishops, priests, deacons, employees, and active volunteers.
Since 2002, hundreds of thousands of adults in our parishes across California have been trained to know warning signs and how to report suspicious or inappropriate behavior to authorities. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of children have been trained to recognize warning signs, what to do in case of danger, and who and how to tell if they have been harmed.
SB 360 seeks to create strong reporting requirements for child abuse and neglect but does so by attacking the inviolable right to privacy in Confession. The first amendment guarantees our right to practice religion free from government interference, but this is exactly what SB 360 seeks to do–define what Confession is and who can and cannot access the right to privacy during the sacrament. Should SB 360 become law, it sets a dangerous precedent that the state can determine when and in what situations the practice of religion can be curtailed.
SB 360 creates unenforceable reporting requirements for child abuse and neglect in the California penal code. Rather than strengthen laws regarding child abuse, this bill creates a grey area. The practice of the sacrament of Confession does not require a penitent to sign-in or provide a name or occupation. Yet, this is exactly the information SB 360 seeks to use to determine whether the privacy protections of the law apply or not. Instead, we support strong, clear supporting requirements that would truly create safety for children.
SB 360 may not affect your Confession. We know the law is largely unenforceable. Further, we know that the penalty for priests who violate the Seal of Confession is excommunication — something priests will not risk, and some have even given their lives for. At the same time, if SB 360 passes, it creates doubt in the minds and hearts of many Catholics. They begin to wonder if priests can be compelled to divulge other sins told to them in confession. This could lead to a chilling effect on some Catholics who would not be able to avail themselves of God’s mercy through the sacrament of Confession.
With all of the discussion of SB 360, some people have expressed fear of going to Confession. First, it is important to remember that SB 360 is just a piece of legislation. It has not been signed into law. So, for now, Confession is exactly the same as it has always been. Further, we know that the state has no jurisdiction over our practice of our faith. The Catholic Church forbids priests from repeating anything that they hear in Confession, on penalty of excommunication. That has not changed. Should SB 360 become law in California, our priests and bishops are committed to offering the sacrament of Confession as it is intended, no matter the consequences.
Anyone can sign the letter, but it is best when a constituent of a particular district sends the letter to his or her Assembly member. One does not need to be a citizen or eligible to vote to sign the letter. Anyone who resides in California has the opportunity to voice his or her opinion about legislation that will affect all California residents.