Thursday, March 06, 2003

Legislators reject bill requiring priests to break seal of Confession

by Henrietta Gomes
Catholic Standard - March 6, 2003 

Last week, Maryland State Senators rejected a bill which would require priests to report any information about child abuse obtained in the confessional except from the abuser. The bill was unanimously defeated by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee a few days after it was introduced by Sen. Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore). Asked whether the measure overstepped the boundaries of religious freedom, Kelley said during the hearing, "sometimes the state must intervene" to protect children. 

Before the hearing, many Catholics from the Archdiocese of Washington contacted legislators by phone, e-mail, and fax, urging them not to pass the legislation. Writing in his weekly column in the Catholic Standard, Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said he would instruct his priests to disobey such a law and would be willing to go to jail on the matter. Breaking the seal of Confession would violate canon Law, causing any priest who does so to be excommunicated. 

Since 1987, a law in Maryland has been in effect that requires priests to report all instances of child abuse they hear about outside of the confessional. 

"There is a mandate in Maryland that teachers and police must report any type of abuse, and so clergy should also report," said Kelley at the hearing last week. Passing the bill, said Kelley, would be in the best interest of Maryland's protection of children, "who are most vulnerable." 

Ellen Mugmon, representing the Coalition to Protect Maryland's Children, testified that the state must "regulate religion when children need to be protected." 

Vick Polin—a member of the Awareness Center that provides resources for Jewish survivors of childhood sexual abuse or assault—testified "because many cases have been covered up in the past, the bill should pass." Polin added, "If clergy were mandated to report then these people (abusers) will get help." 

Arguing against the bill, Dick Dowling, the executive director of Maryland Catholic Conference, said, "There is not one example of a person suffering of being abused because of our Sacrament of reconciliation." About Confession, Dowling said "this is a time honored agreement," and he said the sacramental seal of Confession is a central tenet of the Catholic faith. He noted that the current abuse reporting law, which respects the privacy of the confessional, was "carefully scrutinized by elements of the interfaith community: when it was drafted in the late 1980s. 

Father Daniel Mindling, a dean of Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmetsburg called the Sacrament of Reconciliation, "an act of worship which needs protection. You can't admit sins with no guarantee," he said. "It would weaken our ability to practice our faith. We believe God instituted this," the priest said about the sacrament. About abuse, he said, "If I learn about it in any other way, I report it." 

The controversial bill would have required priests to report suspected abuse heard about in the confessional from a non-abuser, such as a family member. Church policy in the archdioceses of Baltimore and Washington requires priests and any church workers to report suspected abuse to civil authorities, but information learned in the confessional is confidential according to canon law. 

David Kinkopf, an attorney for the Baltimore Archdiocese said, "Our country was founded on religious freedom and religious exercise." He said the proposed measure would be unconstitutional and violate the separation of church and state. 

State Sen. John Giannetti Jr. (Prince George's and Anne Arundel), a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said in a statement that his office received hundreds of calls and e-mails on the matter. "When a man becomes a priest, he takes certain sacred vows," the senator said. "No law should impose on those sanctified vows, and I am going to make sure that they are upheld.

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