Wisconsin Bill Would Require Priests to Violate Seal of Confession

Michael W. Chapman | August 9, 2019 | 12:26pm EDT
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Confessional booth. (Getty Images)

A bill introduced by three Democratic lawmakers in the Wisconsin State Legislature on Aug. 7 would require priests to report information about sexual abuse to law enforcement even if it is learned in the confessional, an action that violates the sacrament of confession and the religious faith of Catholics. Some observers say the bill is patently "anti-Catholic" because it does not also call on lawyers to violate attorney-client privilege or psychiatrists to disclose what they might learn from their patients. 

Wisconsin already has a law from 2004 that requires clergy to report any information about sexual abuse to law enforcement when it is discovered. But this does not apply to information that may be discovered in confession. The new bill, the Clergy Mandatory Reporter Act, would change that situation. 


"The Clergy Mandatory Reporter Act requires that clergy report instances of child abuse, including sexual abuse, and ends a loophole allowing child sexual abuse by clergy to remain secret and unreported," said State Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) in a press release. "These bills will empower survivors to seek justice and healing, while helping to end the abuse of children."

In addition to the Clergy Mandatory Reporter Act, Rep. Taylor, Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), and Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) introduced a second bill, the Child Victims Act, which would lift the statute of limitations on reporting sexual abuse. 

“The abuse of children, including sexual abuse, is happening in communities and in congregations around the globe," said Rep. Chris Taylor.  "[M]embers of the clergy do not have to report the sexual abuse of children, even by other clergy members, if they received evidence of this abuse through private, confidential communications.... It’s time for all legislators to stand with the victims of child abuse, rather than defend archaic laws that shield perpetrators."

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said of the legislation, "The clergy in Wisconsin are already mandated reporters of sexual abuse; this bill would remove the exemption afforded the confessional."

"The sponsors of the bill have provided no evidence that this bill would remedy anything," he said.  "Indeed, they cannot cite one case of sexual abuse that would have been reported to the authorities had the religious exemption for the confessional not existed."

State Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison)

"The government has no business policing the sacraments of the Catholic Church," said Donohue. "This is nothing but grandstanding by politicians pretending to be champions of the victims of sexual abuse."

"Why don't these brave lawmakers go after the lawyer-client privilege?" he added.  "Don't attorneys learn of instances of the sexual abuse of minors? Why not target psychologists and psychiatrists as well? They hear about cases of sexual abuse, yet they are forbidden to violate their professional commitment to their patients."

Donohue continued, "Why are Catholic priests being singled out? This is religious profiling. Indeed, the bill is manifestly anti-Catholic."

Furthermore, the legislation "would forever place in jeopardy the religious liberty protections afforded by the First Amendment," said Donohue in July. 

St. Padre Pio hears confessions. 

The teaching of the Catholic Church states that "the sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason." (Can. 983:1)

Commenting on the supreme importance of confidentiality in the confessional, Catholic University Theology Prof. Chad Pecknol told Our Sunday Visitor in May, “To break the seal of confession is not only a crime in the Church, but it is, in fact, an act of utter betrayal to Jesus Christ."

“No reasonable person would give their lives up in order to protect a child molester or a serial murderer,” he said. “What they’re protecting is the seal, which is their obedience to Jesus Christ, who is the agent of absolution in the confessional. To break the seal is to break trust with Christ.”

There are 1.2 million Catholics in Wisconsin, 715 parishes, 277 Catholic schools and 38 Catholic hospitals. The Wisconsin Legislature is controlled by Republicans, 19-14 in the Senate and 63-36 in the Assemble. The governor, Tony Evers, is a Democrat. 

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