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California Bill Threatening Seal of Confession Pulled by Sponsor

Sacramento, CA (National Catholic Register)—A measure that required California priests to break the seal of the confessional was pulled by its sponsor, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, July 8, offering a reprieve for state Catholics who strongly opposed the measure.

“The action follows the delivery of tens of thousands of letters, emails and phone calls from Catholics and others concerned with the free expression of religion,” said the California Catholic Conference in a statement released late July 8 that confirmed the news.

If passed, S.B. 360 would have required priests to alert local law enforcement about any knowledge or suspicion of child abuse received while hearing the confession of another priest or colleague. And though the bill’s language had been modified to rule out the reporting of such information from the vast majority of penitents, it continued to stir alarm in dioceses and parishes across the state.

“Analysis of S.B. 360 by the staff of the Public Safety Committee [of the California State Assembly], released today, also raised significant First Amendment concerns, emphasized that no other state had taken a similar approach and pointed to the impracticality of enforcing the new law,” said the California Catholic Conference in its statement marking the news.

Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles underscored the importance of this critical political development.

“S.B. 360 was a dangerous piece of legislation,” said Archbishop Gomez in a statement released on July 8.

“If any legislature can force believers to reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings shared with God in confession, then truly there is no area of human life that is free or safe from government intrusion.”

At the same time, he also made clear that the Golden State’s Catholic shepherds would continue to firmly support and adhere to mandatory-reporting laws that require pastors and other Church employees to forward allegations and concerns about suspected abuse to civil and Church authorities.

“From the beginning of this debate, we have argued that S.B. 360 would do nothing to protect children from the scourge of child abuse,” he said, and then he listed the norms and protocols already in place to protect minors and vulnerable adults. He also emphasized the need to continue to combat clergy sexual abuse.

“So, as we thank God today for helping to keep confession sacred, we need to commit ourselves again—every one of us, in every faith and walk of life—to eliminate this scourge of abuse,” he said, in an implicit acknowledgement of the enormous damage that the abuse crisis has inflicted on the Catholic Church’s moral credibility.

Sen. Hill continued to defend the need for his bill, but he acknowledged that it did “not have enough support” from assembly members.

“The bill is on pause; it has not been withdrawn,” he said in a July 8 statement provided to the Register.

The California Catholic Conference statement explained that “the California Legislature has a two-year session; the bill can still be considered next year.”

Now, the “pause” on the confession bill marks a major win for Church leaders and the faithful, especially in a state that diverges from Church teaching on abortion, assisted suicide and conscience rights.

The outpouring of opposition to the confession bill, said Archbishop Gomez, “was a sign of the great faith and vitality of our Catholic community and the importance of confession to our religious identity and practice.”

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