Three North Dakota state lawmakers this week introduced a bill that would require Catholic priests to violate the seal of confession in cases of confirmed or suspected child abuse, under penalty of imprisonment or severe penalties or heavy fines.
Two Republican senators and a Democrat, as well as two state representatives, one Democrat and one Republican, want to change the law on mandatory reporting of child abuse.
Current law states that members of the clergy are required to report any abuse, unless “knowledge or suspicion arises from information received as a spiritual advisor,” such as in the confessional.
The bill presented on January 12 seeks to abolish this exception. This would make priests refusing to violate the seal of confession, guilty of an offense punishable by 30 days in prison and a $1,500 fine.
It should be remembered that a priest cannot, under any pretext, reveal what he has heard in confession, neither in a direct way—by saying the sin committed by such and such a penitent; nor in an indirect way—by specifying an element allowing a third party to deduce the sin committed by the penitent.
A priest who is guilty of such a sin, incurs, if the violation is direct, the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae, i.e., without necessity of trial to undergo the penalty, the absolution of which is reserved to the Apostolic See. If the violation is indirect, the penalty is pronounced according to the gravity of the offense.
This is not the first time that an American state has raised the issue of sacramental secrecy in cases of child abuse in this way. January 2020 saw the tabling of a bill in Utah to remove the legal protection enjoyed by ministers of Catholic religion in connection with sacramental confession.
A similar bill that would have required priests to violate the seal was introduced in California, then dropped in 2019 amid concerns for religious freedom and enforcement issues. In 2016, a Louisiana state appeals court upheld a priest’s right to keep the sacramental seal of confession in an abuse trial.
Several Australian states, including the states of Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, and in September 2020, finally the state of Queensland, have already adopted laws requiring priests to violate the seal of confession, following the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Clergy Sexual Abuse.
But whatever the case, no law can ever authorize or oblige a priest to violate a secret for which he must be ready to give his freedom or his life.