Following opposition from the religious community, local state Sen. Jerry Hill opted last week to hold a bill that would end an exemption that allows clergy members to not report cases of child abuse or neglect that are revealed during penitential communications.
Between the time he introduced SB 360 in February and when he decided to hold the legislation in advance of a July 9 hearing at the Assembly Public Safety Committee, the bill was scaled back. As currently written, it would require clergy members to report child abuse and neglect learned about during penitential communications only in situations where those conversations involve other clergy members or coworkers.
He said the legislation was put on hold because he hopes to bring more of his colleagues together to advance the bill.
"As we try to move forward," he told The Almanac in a July 12 statement, "the question before us remains: What can be done to protect children from sexual abuse at a time when society is finally acknowledging the great damage done when abuse is kept under wraps by institutions and professions of all kinds? It makes sense to examine what can be done to stop perpetuating abuse – especially in circumstances where scandal after scandal has shown that abuse of vulnerable individuals persists."
In previous remarks, Hill explained that the law already mandates that people such as physicians, teachers, peace officers, therapists and social workers – as well as clergy in many cases – report suspected child abuse or neglect to law enforcement. He argued that there should be no exception for clergy who are made privy to such information as part of a penitential communication.
A communication is considered "penitential" under California law if it is intended to be conveyed in confidence, if it is made to a member of the clergy who is authorized or accustomed to hear such communications, and if that member has a duty under the discipline or tenets of his or her church to keep those communications secret. Hill seeks to narrow that definition to instead refer to a communication that is verbal, made privately to a clergy member, intended to be an act of contrition or matter of conscience, and shared in a context of confidentiality "that is considered inviolate by church doctrine."
Hill stated that recent investigations from 14 state attorneys general, the federal government, and other countries have revealed "that the clergy-penitent privilege has been abused on a large scale, resulting in the unreported and systemic abuse of thousands of children across multiple denominations and faiths."
In addition, similar statutes already exist in Connecticut, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.
While the Senate passed the revised bill with a 30-4 vote on May 23, Hill was made aware that the legislation would not have enough support to move on.
Over the months it was on the table, the bill received an outpouring of opposition: According to the Catholic News Agency, over 100,000 Catholics sent letters voicing their opposition to SB 360.
"Even if this bill passes, no priest may obey it," stated Bishop Michale Barber of Oakland, according to the news agency. "I will go to jail before I will obey this attack on our religious freedom." Priests who share what they learn during a confession to anyone at any time or for any reason are subject to automatic excommunication and further punishments, the agency reported.
One petition circulated by the Archdiocese of San Francisco argued that SB 360 would "deny the right to confidential confessions to priests and to tens of thousands of Catholics who work with priests in parishes and other Church agencies and ministries."
Supporters of the bill include a number of child advocacy groups, Restorative Justice International, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and the Truth and Transparency Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has released documents and engaged in investigative reporting about religious institutions on the topics of finance, policies and abuse.
Reports of abuse perpetrated or hidden by religious leaders continue to emerge, and there have been cases reported locally and across denominations, such as in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the United Methodist Church, and the Jehovah's Witnesses church communities, according to Hill.
In March, a Catholic priest was arrested in the Bay Area on suspicion of 30 counts of child sex abuse in 2016 and 2017.
In May, Vice News published a report that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known widely as the Mormon church, has a "helpline" that the church's congregation leaders, called bishops, are instructed to call when they receive confessions of sexual abuse, rather than alerting local law enforcement authorities directly and immediately. Vice News reports that calls reporting abuse are directed to a law firm the church works with, Kirton McConkie, which also defends the church in abuse-related lawsuits – meaning defense lawyers are used to screen abuse reports. The church contends the helpline is designed to maintain confidentiality and advise bishops about compliance with local abuse reporting laws, according to its news publication, Deseret News.
"This issue remains important to me, and I will continue to champion it in the hope that my colleagues can come together on legislation," Hill said. "I strongly believe that for any institution, self-policing and self-investigation are not effective ways to combat alleged abuse, as our own state Legislature has found.
"The bill is on pause; it has not been withdrawn.”