Proposed California bill would mandate priests report sexual abuse discussed in confession

Posted at 2:07 PM, Apr 04, 2019

SACRAMENTO - California lawmakers are hoping to reverse hundreds of years of tradition in the Catholic church and mandate that priests who hear of child sexual abuses in confession report it to law enforcement.

"The victims are told to be quiet, abusers are let go, free. Nothing happens to them and the cycle repeats and repeats," Kameron Torres said.

It was just two years ago Torres, as he puts it, woke up to the brainwashing of being a Jehovah's Witness. He says at 6 years old he was sexually abused by a person of authority within the church and nothing was done about it.

"You go to meetup groups, that’s what happened to me, and I started hearing the same stories," Torres said. "I realized very quickly it wasn't just me."

Torres said abuses happen in many religious denominations, and too often the abuser gets away with it. He’s now helping lawmakers push Senate Bill 360 to end the silence around abuse.

"SB 360 requires clergy to report suspected child abuse or neglect," said Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo.

But many people are wondering if the bill goes too far.

It would challenge centuries of church tradition in which priests are sworn not to violate their promise to God to keep what’s said in confession private.

"It would undermine the entire sacrament of confession for something that’s not likely to happen," said Steve Pehanich with the California Catholic Conference of Bishops.

Pehanich said SB 360 would essentially put clergy in an impossible position and violate California laws or violate their oath to God.

Pehanich added if the aim is to stop sexual abuse within the ranks of the clergy and stop the church from hiding those abuses, this isn’t the solution.

"We all want to protect children, especially now, but this bill is not going to do it," he said.

Current law does exempt clergy from reporting crimes they hear about during confession but lawmakers said it's time for California to change that.

"It is immoral and against God's will for people to abuse children and I think it is the responsibility of the state to do everything it can to make sure that does not continue," said Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara.

Torres said he and others will continue to fight for the bill as church leaders push back.

"It’s misusing this exemption for clergy," he said.

"The confessor is not confessing to the priest, he or she is confessing to God," Pehanich said.

The bill did advance out of its first committee 5-0 but two senators didn't vote at all.