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Child Abuse

In the Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, it says that the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. Whereby parishioners, the faithful, enter into a confessional to obtain absolution for the sins committed against God and neighbor.

It is a long-held tradition that confession is sacred: what a person confesses stays in the box. Essentially, penitential communication shall not be repeated, under no uncertain terms. However, in modern times this age-old practice is being called into question, notably when and how a priest learns of abuse.

A California state lawmaker, Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), is gearing up for a fight on this subject. Sen. Hill has introduced Senate Bill 360 Mandated reporters: clergy (2019-2020), The Los Angeles Times reports. A relatively straightforward piece of legislation that is sure to lead to complicated and philosophical debates.

Right to Private Penance vs Protecting Children

A mandated reporter is a person who is legally required to report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect to the appropriate authorities. People working in certain professions, such as teaching, counseling, and practicing medicine, must report instances of abuse.

Failure to report abuse can lead to severe legal and professional ramifications. The list of mandated reporters, under the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act, is lengthy, and it includes clergy. However, existing law allows priests a special dispensation: when abuse is discovered via penitential communication. SB-360 would remove the exception, requiring clergy to notify the appropriate authorities despite learning of mistreatment in the confession box.

“SB 360 is about the safety and protection of children,” said Sen. Hill. “The law should apply equally to all professionals who have been designated as mandated reporters of these crimes — with no exceptions, period. The exemption for clergy only protects the abuser and places children at further risk.” 

Around the globe, the church is in spotlight regarding child molestation. Evidence of widespread abuse and coverups will lead to some changes, hopefully. Still, it is unlikely that many readers will be surprised to learn that the Catholic Church is not an advocate of Sen. Hill’s proposal.

“Inserting government into the Confessional does nothing to protect children and everything to erode the fundamental constitutional rights and liberties we enjoy as Americans,” said Steve Pehanich, director of communications and advocacy for the California Catholic Conference.

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