“There is no question that protecting children is essential and criminals must be held accountable for their crimes. But disregarding fundamental religious rights is unnecessary,” he said.
The exemption to the current law is “very narrow,” according to Coyne. No office conversations or counseling sessions are privileged. He characterized confession as “a moment of worship in which the penitent seeks God’s mercy.”
Coyne said all clergy and lay employees of the Burlington Diocese are mandatory reporters. Anyone who works for the diocese or diocesan parishes must have a criminal background check and safe environment training to recognize signs of child abuse.
“The priest has a sacred duty to maintain the secrecy of sacramental confession,” he said. “The sacramental seal of confession is the worldwide law of the Catholic Church, not just the diocese. No bishop has the authority to change this.”
“Requiring clergy to report child abuse learned during a penitential communication would infringe upon our First Amendment rights,” said the bishop. “Not just the rights of myself and the clergy but the rights of all of the Catholics in the state of Vermont and the rights of any other faith community that has that kind of a privileged penitential communication.”
From ancient times confessions could not be shared with anyone else even if it was to the advantage of the Church or the priest, according to Coyne.
“Today, the president of the United States could go to confession to a priest and the priest would not have to worry about being subpoenaed by Congress to expose what was said,” Coyne said.
Persons at the confessional do have to be truly penitent and seek to change their lives, the bishop added. Clergy could encourage the penitent to go to the authorities if a crime has been committed, but this is the penitent’s duty.
Other states are considering similar legislation.
In Kansas, State Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, introduced S.B. 87, which would require ordained ministers in the state to report suspected physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and neglect of children. Failure to report would mean a misdemeanor charge.
Though his 2019 bill on the same topic contained an exemption for the penitential privilege, his 2023 legislation does not exempt penitential communications, the Topeka-Capital Journal reported in January.
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Chuck Weber, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, told CNA he knows of no plans to have a hearing on the bill.
“The Kansas Catholic Conference has long supported the measure, only with a penitential privilege protection clause,” he said.
Kansas priests are already “trained and complying with the responsibility to report instances of abuse and/or neglect,” Weber said.
Holland told the Topeka-Capital Journal he was concerned the exemption would be “a back door to not reporting” that would discourage law enforcement investigations. Exempting confessions would be “the easy way out.”
“If we have a religious organization where this is a pervasive problem, my concern is that then the exemption becomes basically standard operating procedure where if something happens, run and go confess it, and now when the investigators come it’s like, ‘We don’t know, we’re not obligated to share that information,’” he said.
The Washington state Legislature had two bills concerning mandatory child abuse reporting by clergy. The Senate version, S.B. 5280, preserved the clergy-penitent privilege, while the House of Representative version, H.B. 1098, did not. The Senate unanimously passed its version of the bill on Wednesday and sent it to the House for approval. The House version was technically a viable bill but Wednesday was its last chance to pass the House, Adrienne Joyce, director of policy and communications, told CNA March 8.