Md. Senators Vote Down Bill that Targeted Confessional Privilege

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

( - Maryland state senators Friday voted down a bill that would have required priests to divulge information they heard in the confessional pertaining to suspected child abuse.

The bill, SB 412, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Delores Kelley, would have required clergy members to report any information learned in the confessional about child abuse from third parties, such as the relative of an abuser, or by victims themselves.

However, the legislation would have exempted information divulged as a direct admission by an abuser.

"If the perpetrator confessed, the priest wouldn't be required to report. Otherwise, the priest would be required to report," a source familiar with the legislation explained.

Senators voted against the bill at a meeting of the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Friday. A hearing was scheduled for Mar. 12 to debate a companion bill on the House side, HB 823.

A supporter of the legislation, who requested anonymity, said the defeat would allow a "continued conspiracy of silence among the clergy."

"I think the objections to the bill were quite overblown. We allowed the church to change the message from 'child protection' to 'the confessional,' and the media ran with that. So they outdid us on the message," the source said. Moreover, opponents in some cases were abusive toward legislators, the source alleged.

The legislation, SB 412, drew strong opposition from Catholic leaders who charged that the proposal would have subjected priests to punishment if they continued to adhere to church law, which requires them to keep confessions secret.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick threatened to instruct all priests in the Archdiocese of Washington to ignore the law.

"On this issue, I will gladly plead civil disobedience and willingly - if not gladly - go to jail," McCarrick said in the Feb. 20 issue of the Catholic Standard.

Louis Giovino, director of communications with the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said the legislation was misguided because there is no evidence to suggest the confessional is used to cover up crimes of child abuse.

"The remedy here is worse than the disease because the seal of the confessional is integral to the sacrament, and it's never broken for any reason," he said.

Michael Schwartz, vice president for government relations with Concerned Women for America and a Catholic activist, said reformers should seek to hold bishops more accountable in sex abuse cases and not support legislation that could target the confessional.

"The problem is not the fact that priests have succumbed to temptations of the flesh, the problem is that bishops covered it up and failed to take due diligence to protect people from the weaknesses of their employees," he said.

"There's not a single instance of a priest confessing his sins to someone else and that someone else having to keep mum about it. All of this stuff is in court records," Schwartz said.

Supporters of the bill argued that the law's exception for clergy members is too broad. Members of the clergy are excluded from mandatory reporting of child abuse in any communication under canon law, church doctrine or practice.

Currently, 33 states require clergy to report child sexual abuse, but only two - Kentucky and New Hampshire - specifically include information from confessions.

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