When I began covering the Vatican in the 1990s, Italian journalist Vittorio Messori was a legend. [...] I remember how he once spoke about [...] the many atrocities in human history that have been avoided thanks to the sacrament of confession, that unique moment in which, in an absolutely private way, a priest can speak heart to heart with someone, opening up the possibility of a radical change of life.
The memory comes to mind in light of a bill currently being debated in the California Senate, SB 360, which would remove the secrecy of confession by eliminating an exemption for "penitential communication" from the state's reporting law. Its sponsor, Senator Jerry Hill, claims that it is necessary because "clergy-penitent privilege has been abused on a large scale, leading in multiple churches and religious denominations to that systematic abuse of thousands of children, which has gone unreported.".
Obviously, Hill's assault on the Church is a natural consequence of [...] the clerical sexual abuse crisis [...] and the report of the Grand Jury in Pennsylvania last year, as well as the scandal surrounding former Cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick. However, just because the Church has lived through all of this does not mean that any punitive measure one comes up with is a good idea, and there are numerous reasons to conclude that Hill's proposal is a spectacularly bad idea.
The list begins with the obvious and enormous violation of religious freedom that this law represents. The sacrament of confession is a central element of the Catholic faith, and no state should ever be able to dictate doctrine to a religious community. One might also mention that to focus on the Catholic Church is to ignore the broader context of child sexual abuse.
Recently, the Schools Insurance Authority of California commissioned an audit of the potential impact of another law also in the pipeline that would make it much easier to sue public schools for child abuse. The audit took its cue from a 2017 U.S. Department of Justice estimate that 10-12 % of public school children experience sexual harassment by an employee sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade, and calculated that, for the purposes of the law, the losses to the California system from those claims could rise from $813 million over the past 12 years to $3.7 billion. Aside from the staggering dollar amount, let's stop for a moment and think that 10-12 % of all public school students experience sexual harassment or abuse. Last year there were 55.6 million youth in America's public elementary and secondary schools, which means that between 5.6 and 6.7 million children will be abused at some point. Compare this figure with the fact that today, after the anti-abuse measures adopted by the American Church in recent decades, and according to the respected Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate Georgetown University, the national average number of accusations of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests processed each year is about seven. One case is already too many; the juxtaposition between the two figures is striking in any case.
The inevitable question is whether opening a battle over confession is, indeed, the best use of public resources in order to keep children safe.
Perhaps the most decisive aspect, however, is the one suggested by Messori's comment: the sacrament of confession is not a gimmick to hide abuse, but a unique instrument the Church has to prevent and stop it.
The truth is that most "predators" don't pile into confessionals to talk about it. They are masters of compartmentalization, and often don't even think they are doing anything wrong. Eliminating secrecy, even if priests were to comply with the law - and I suspect most would prefer to go to jail - would hardly generate an avalanche of new information. However, in the rare event that a predator came forward to confess, it would be a precious opportunity to make that person see that he or she needs to stop; and, possibly, to refuse absolution if the predator is unable or unwilling to do so. It is an opportunity for the priest to peek inside that person's conscience, trying to fan the flames of any embers of repentance and guilt that may be smoldering within.
Dispensing with the secrecy of confession, therefore, would not promote security, but rather damage it. It is difficult to see how a publicity stunt like SB 2360, much as the Church can only reproach itself, could justify such an outcome, assuming its goal is not just to get headlines and votes, but to fight abuse.