North Dakota Goes After Seal of Confession

North Dakota is the latest state to attempt to force priests to violate the seal of the confessional or face criminal penalties. A bipartisan bill has been introduced by legislators that would remove the exemption currently in place to mandatory reporting laws when “the knowledge or suspicion is derived from information received in the capacity of spiritual adviser.” Removing this exemption would require priests to report knowledge of abuse even when obtained through sacramental confession.

Christopher Dodson, the executive director and general counsel for the North Dakota Catholic Conference said he was surprised by the bill, given that the Attorney General of North Dakota had only recently completed an 18 month investigation into the sexual abuse of minors by priests of the two diocese within the state and learned that only one accusation of abuse had not already been reported to civil authorities. The case was from the 1970s and was not reported because the abuser was not a priest of either diocese. Clearly, then, there is no evidence of widespread cover-ups of abuse on the part of the Church in North Dakota. As well, legislators cannot point to any evidence that the sacrament of confession is an obstacle to the reporting of sexual abuse, or that any harm had been suffered by any child as a result of information that was concealed by the sacrament of confession. Furthermore, while the legislation removes the exemption for spiritual advisors, the exemption would remain intact for attorney-client privilege as well as the privilege enjoyed by psychiatrists and their patients.

The Catholic Church continues to be uniquely targeted by state Attorneys General and legislatures on the matter of the sexual abuse of minors, despite the fact that the Church, beginning in the early 1980s, adopted reforms to address the problem and that those reforms have proved remarkably successful. In the peak years of the abuse horror, the mid-1970s, there were hundreds of new credible cases of priests abusing minors. Since 1990, the number of new credible accusations against priests has averaged less then ten a year. One is too many, of course, but no institution in the United States has achieved greater success in addressing and reducing abuse as the Catholic Church, and most have not even tried. Despite the fact that studies demonstrate that tens of thousands of students are abused each year by employees of the public schools across the country (A Crisis As Millions Of Students Abused By Teachers; How Common Is Child Abuse in Schools?), and that public schools continue to hire known abusers (Teachers who sexually abuse students still find classroom jobs), no state Attorney General has initiated an investigation of sexual abuse in their state’s public schools.

This new attempt to force priests to violate the seal of the confessional is an obvious attack on religious liberty. What is more, it will prove fruitless. Other states have attempted similar legislation, but those bills have been defeated or, when passed, eventually dropped over concerns for religious liberty. In Australia, several states have passed laws requiring priests to violate the seal of the confessional. None have done so. It is highly unlikely that any priest would, given the severe penalties attached to doing so, and given the devotion priests have to their penitents and to the integrity of the sacrament. Finally, even if such a bill were to pass, priests could avoid it simply by returning to the practice of hearing confessions only behind a screen, where the identity of the penitent is concealed. This bill, then, provides nothing more than an opportunity for legislators to pretend that they care about protecting children, rather than taking substantive measures to reduce abuse where the threat is considerably greater.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


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