In the California legislature we currently have S.B. 360, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Hill, which would require priests to report to secular authorities what they might learn about certain crimes in the course of hearing confessions. This is reported in the National Catholic Reporter of May 17, 2019. The bill would apply to all clergy people, not only Catholic, and would apply to crimes other than child abuse. There was a case of murder for which the wrong man was tried, convicted, and punished, although a priest had heard the confession of the true murderer and did not report the facts. Church authorities are resisting the bill’s passage.
There are good arguments on both sides of the question. Moreover, it would not seem to be a problem only for priests. If a murder suspect is wrongly convicted, surely that is first a law enforcement error. Unfortunately, it has been known to happen where no church was involved.
The legislators who have this bill before them believe that by passing it they would be protecting children—note well: not the children already abused, but hypothetical children who might be abused in future if an offender goes on unimpeded. Surely that must be prevented to the full extent possible. Would it serve the purpose if the bishop or committee of them imagined above were quietly to inform secular authorities they need to look in a certain direction for evidence of crime, without giving any priest’s or criminal offender’s name? Could we not accept a degree of imperfection in our system for the sake of the Church’s sacramental and pastoral offices?
One can imagine a process that would protect both the victims or potential victims of crimes, and the Church’s integrity. Could a priest who hears a crime confessed perhaps report the fact not to secular authorities, but to his bishop? Could that bishop, or a committee of bishops, communicate enough information to be useful to law enforcement authorities for them to act, without divulging the penitent person’s name? If law enforcement authorities had reason enough by this means to question a conviction, should they not release the wrongly convicted, whether or not they know who should have been found guilty? True enough, a guilty person is still at large, but the public probably does not realize or want to think about how few murder are ever actually solved, or about how many criminals go free among us every day.
To most citizens, these questions might seem to revolve around First Amendment issues of Free Speech and the free practice of religion. From a legal standpoint, those are the important matters. But this issue places us in a wider than legal horizon. It is one thing to expose a sinner to civic punishment; it is another to interpose a barrier between the sinner and God. Certainly the latter relationship, fragile enough in the best of circumstances, is essential to protect, knowing there is none of us qualified to judge another. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.”