SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) has introduced a bill, SB 360, to end the “penitential communication” exemption to child abuse reporting.

Currently, 43 categories of adults are required to report to the police if they know or “reasonably suspect” a child is “has been the victim of child abuse or neglect.” (Cal. Penal Code 11166(a).) There is an exception for clergy who gain knowledge of abuse during “penitential communication,” sometimes referred to as “confession.”  (Cal. Penal Code 11166(d).) Hill says “those in the clergy have been able to abuse and get away with it,” because of the exception so his bill would erase it from the law. “This bill will require that everyone has to say something when they see it.”

The categories of “mandatory reporters” under California law include teachers, daycare workers, police, firefighters, doctors, dentists, podiatrists, psychiatrists, psychologists, coaches, and clergy. (Cal. Penal Code 11165.7.) Clergy are the only persons who get any exception under the law – they do not have to report abuse if they learn about it in the course of “penitential communication.”

Hill says the exception is really a loophole because “penitential communication” can mean any conversation with a member of the clergy. “Any communication can be conceived as a penitential communication, if it is in an office or anyplace, as long as there’s an understanding there it’s privileged, it does not have to be reported,” said Hill.

The law defines a “penitential communication” as “a communication, intended to be in confidence, including, but not limited to, a sacramental confession, made to a clergy member who…has a duty to keep those communications secret.” (Cal. Penal Code 11166(d).) Essentially, anytime a person tells a secret to a priest, even if it is a secret revealing child abuse, the priest need not report it.

“They’ve exploited a well-intentioned law to make it into their personal way of avoiding being truthful,” says Dan McNevin, area leader of the Survivor’s Network for those Abused by Priests. He says any time a priest discusses his own sexual abuse with another priest, there is no reporting requirement. “It’s just another way they keep up this society of secrecy where they protect each other.”

McNevein says he’s heard stories of priests who told other priests about their abusive actions but were never reported to police. “Knowing what we know now about the church, it’s clear they cannot be trusted,” he says. “To eliminate any loophole, I think, is the best protection for children.”

Hill say 10 other states including Connecticut and Texas have already eliminated the “penitential communication” exception for abuse reporting.

Still, he’s already been put on notice that the church is going to fight his law with six lobbying firms and virtually unlimited funds. “We know we’re in for a fight,” says Hill. “But we’re ready. And we’re on the right side of the issue.”

The California Catholic Conference sent us this statement, “Clergy are already mandatory reporters.  We support that and would do nothing to change it.  Inserting government into the Confessional does nothing to protect children and everything to erode the fundamental constitutional rights and liberties we enjoy as Americans.  It’s also why courts here and around the world respect the special nature of spiritual counseling.”

Comments (5)
  1. Elizabeth Sailor says:

    What about the fundamental rights of children to be safe from harm. Which “right” super succeeds the other?

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