Bishop Oscar Solis of the Diocese of Salt Lake City is urging lawmakers to protect the seal of confession when considering legislation that would change sex abuse reporting laws when the reporter is a member of clergy.

proposed bill before the Utah Legislature would extend to members of the clergy the same legal protections when reporting sex abuse that are given to mandatory reporters. Essentially, the legislation would shield clergy from potential civil or criminal liability when reporting a potential abuser if he “reasonably believes that a child is the subject of ongoing abuse or neglect.”

Unlike similar proposals in 2020 and 2023, the bill would not make the priest a mandatory reporter and would not require the priest to report on information learned when hearing a confession. However, the protection from legal liability would extend to the priest if he were to do so.

Solis said the diocese, which encompasses the entirety of Utah, is not against this version of the bill. In his letter, the bishop discouraged lawmakers from altering the language in any way that would jeopardize the seal of confession.

“We do not oppose the proposed legislation, as initially written, but we are concerned about the possibility that the language could be changed to require that Catholic priests report such abuse even if they have learned about the abuse solely during the sacrament of confession,” Solis said in a Feb. 2 letter.

The bishop said in his letter that any requirement that would force priests to break the seal of confession would force them to “face the untenable choice of breaking the law or being excommunicated.”

“I respectfully ask our legislators to oppose any legislation that curtails religious liberties, and I encourage all the Church faithful to talk to their respective representatives, give them a call, send a letter or email and make them aware of the centrality of the seal of the confessional to our faith,” Solis said.

Rep. Anthony Loubet, the chief sponsor of the bill, told CNA that he expresses his “sincere gratitude” for the bishop’s remarks and conveyed his “utmost respect for the [Catholic Church’s] ongoing benevolence it extends to communities.” He said that the language is meant to “strike a balance that respects religious freedoms while also safeguarding the well-being of children.”

“In the deliberation of this legislation, my intent was to navigate with sensitivity and find a delicate equilibrium,” Loubet said. “The aim was to provide religious organizations the option to report, ensuring they benefit from the liability protections afforded to other mandatory reporters in cases of child abuse and neglect. Simultaneously, I aimed to respect those institutions with policies or practices prohibiting disclosure, upholding the sanctity and confidentiality intrinsic to certain relationships.”

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The bill received its first reading in the House on Wednesday, Jan. 31.

The inviolability of the seal of confession

According to the current Code of Canon Law, priests are prohibited from disclosing any information learned in a confession. If a priest violates the inviolability of confession by directly revealing information said in the confessional, he incurs an automatic excommunication. This penalty also applies to translators or any person who inadvertently hears the confession.

“The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason,” Canon 983 of the Code of Canon Law declares.

In his letter, Solis noted that the sacrament of reconciliation is “a spiritual tradition long practiced by our Catholic Church.”

“The sacrament of confession has been central to the practice of our Catholic faith for 2,000 years,” the bishop said. “This divine gift from Jesus helps us prepare to receive the Eucharist and to participate fully in our faith. During the sacrament of reconciliation, as it also is known, we confess and seek absolution of our sins from a priest, who sits in the confessional as our living conduit to our God.”

Solis added that “priests have a sacred duty to keep in confidence any information they hear from confession.”

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“When hearing confession, priests are not like therapists or teachers or other professionals; in the confessional the priest sits as our living conduit to our God,” the bishop continued. “Before granting absolution, a priest hearing a confession of criminal wrongdoing may require the penitent to self-report to law enforcement, seek counseling, offer to talk with the person outside of the confessional and accompany him or her in the act of self-reporting, or require some other similar act of restorative justice through penance.”