Protecting Penance

I met with some folks earlier this week for a private discussion, which began in part by them querying my responsibilities as a mandatory reporter.

As an ordained minister of religion, the state recognizes that people may tell me things as part of private confession, and that those things should remain private (the eventual fortunately didn’t entail anything controversial!).  But there are folks who think that this should no longer be the case.

California State Senate Bill 360 would remove the clause in the existing Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act that exempts confessional statements from existing mandatory reporting requirements for clergy.  Some clergy members are speaking out against this as dangerous, and for good reason.

As it stands now, I have to report if I think a child is being abused or neglected, or if I come to that awareness by any number of possible ways.  But if someone discloses private information to this effect, I am not required by law to report it to authorities.   In our day, this sounds like pretty important stuff.  Why wouldn’t a priest or clergy member report possible criminal activity – particularly against children – even within the more narrow confines of Confession & Absolution?

The difficulty is in the relationship of a priest/clergy member to someone desirous of and in need of confidential handling of sensitive information.  I like how Father Pietrzky is quoted in the article – The Catholic Church holds that the information received by the priest in confession does not belong to him.  It belongs to God alone.

The current law indicates that any kind of private communication could be exempt from mandatory reporting, not just the more narrow confines of confession and absolution.  I could see an argument being made for a more narrow exclusion to mandatory reporting, but then again that would complicate matters considerably.

The reality is that priests and ministers have a unique role and relationship both to their parishioners and those who relate to them in their professional capacity.  I’ve heard private confessions from people wracked with guilt over things they’ve done in their lives.  I’ve heard horrible things.  Nothing, thankfully, that was ongoing or led me to believe that anyone was at risk of harm, but still things that are hard to hear.  Just as it’s hard for them to say them.

But it’s my job to hear these things, a direct command from Jesus to those who would become his church.  I am to convey his forgiveness to these people, for these specific sins.  Some might argue that the same thing can be accomplished in general or corporate confession, or through privately praying to Jesus.  But Christians have long understood that we have an enemy who works against the hope and confidence we are given in the death and resurrection of the Son of God through our baptism.  We’re prone to sitting in church, or at home after prayer, and telling ourselves that the forgiveness the priest or minister declares isn’t really for me.  Not for what I’ve done.  For everybody else, sure, but not for me.

Private confession provides very specific assurance of forgiveness by Jesus’ authority and command.  This is exclusively something that has to do with our relationship before God.  Who else on earth can someone go to in complete honesty?  Who else can someone verbalize things to, and then hear forgiveness promised to them due not to the civil or criminal justice system but solely and completely based on the death and resurrection of the Son of God?

I understand people’s concerns – that ongoing harmful or illegal behavior will continue despite confession & absolution.  There may be the idea that crime could be curtailed if clergy were forced to be mandatory reporters for child abuse.  But of course once established for one class of crime it would be a slippery slope towards mandating reporting for any illegal activity.

All I can say is that in over a decade I’ve never heard a confession that involved child abuse or any other major crime (murder, etc.) or anything that would even remotely incline me to report, or wish that I could.  Perhaps it isn’t really crime or child abuse this bill is after.  Perhaps it’s just another attempt to eradicate freedom of religion.

 

 

 

 

 

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