Senate bill would require clergy reporting of child abuse

By Guy Page

A bill introduced into the Vermont Senate last week would, in practice, break the sacred seal of the church confessional in cases of child abuse. 

S16, sponsored by Judiciary Chair Sen. Richard Sears (D-Bennington), would “repeal the four-pronged exception that permits clergy to not report child abuse and neglect when it is received in confidence while acting as a spiritual advisor.”

Sen. Richard Sears (D-Bennington)

At present, virtually all other professions dealing with children must report to authorities incidents of child abuse communicated to them. However, Vermont state law 33 V.S.A. § 4913 provides a clergy exception for some types of communications. These exceptions would be removed under S16.

The bill was committed to Sears’ committee, Senate Judiciary. It is considered extremely likely to receive a committee hearing, which would include testimony from affected parties. 

In press statements, Sears has said he realizes it’s a complex issue. But Sears – himself a former social worker with children – also told reporters, “My gut reaction is that nobody should get a free pass.”

Clergy reporting of child abuse is a matter for state law. Most states require clergy reporting in some, but not all, instances. For a state-by-state list see www.childwelfare.gov

According to the Catholic Education Resource Center, the seal of the confessional cannot be violated for any reason. For a priest to do so is a crime against church law. 

The sacramental seal is inviolable. Quoting Canon 983.1 of the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism states, “…It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason” (No. 2490). A priest, therefore, cannot break the seal to save his own life, to protect his good name, to refute a false accusation, to save the life of another, to aid the course of justice (like reporting a crime), or to avert a public calamity.

Among most Protestant clergy, no such absolute, inviolable seal exists, although confidentiality is generally considered a non-negotiable requirement between spiritually counselor and the counseled. 

Supporters of repealing the clergy exemption say (like Sears) it promotes fairness among all professionals working with children. They also say it would help uncover hidden child abuse, both outside and inside religious instititutions. As the saying goes, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

According to a Washington Examiner report, opponents of mandatory clergy reporting say it might:

  • Discourage victims from seeking counseling
  • Violate the sacredness and privacy of confession
  • Put more people into potential legal jeopardy, both those accused of abuse and those who fail to report their suspicions.
  • Increase likelihood of reporting abuses, such as “investigations based on hunches or ambiguous evidence which can harm the innocent, traumatize families, result in CPS [child protective services] raids, and stimulate false allegations” (Walter Olson, Cato Institute). 

Categories: Legislation

19 replies »

  1. The marxists that a majority of Vermont voters have put in charge are waging total war on faith and morality. I would hope that any ordained official will put the laws of their church above the dictats of a bunch of vindictive commies in the legislature. As a potential juror, I will side with the Church over the illegitimate and malicious actions of the scum that inhabit the Golden Dome.

  2. I’m an atheist, but this still disgusts me as an American. The hubris it must take to write laws you know damn well are unconstitutional…

  3. I can guarantee that this isn’t the first time that the Roman Catholic Church has run up against these sorts of laws. There is likely a whole division of Canon Law dealing with exactly this. There is also a possibility that clergy could avoid this by legitimately claiming to be representatives of a recognized foreign state, that of Vatican City. Admittedly, not sure of the feasibility of this, though.

    • I think you are on to something …. look up Judge Dale, ret. there are a lot of eye-openers he reveals.

    • Ordinary priests are not citizens of the Holy See (Vatican City is the territory of the Holy See; not the jurisdiction), nor are they diplomats. I believe a priest has his best argument under freedom of religion. I also believe there is one exception to the seal…if a penitent indicates he WILL do further acts.

  4. In my opinion, although I believe Sen. Sears’ intentions are good, this bill is clearly unconstitutional. In one case, a priest who receives an offender’s confession would be required to violate his vows. In another case, an offender who wishes to confess (to God) and repent may be discouraged from doing so, because he knows his confession will be revealed to civil authorities. In either case, this bill would violate the First Amendment by effectively prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

    • My friend Tom Koch probably did not need 30 seconds to come to the conclusion that the bill is unconstitutional. Did Senator Sears do any research? The seal of confession is inviolable and absolute. The current law in effect acknowledges this fact by carving out the exception which the bill seeks to eliminate.
      A priest who obeys his vows would go to jail before revealing the confessed sins of a penitent. Therefore, not only would this be unconstitutional and therefore illegal, but it would also not be effective; priests will not be reporting sinners who confess in the confessional. Giving Senator Sears the benefit of the doubt as to his motives, I am not favorably impressed by the research skills of our legislature. In other words, if the senator and his staff were unaware that priests may not reveal confessed sins, I question their competence. If Senator Sears knew that good priests must refuse to reveal confessed sins, then one can only conclude his motives are not as pure as suggested by Representative Koch. Either Senator Sears is demonstrating bias borne of woeful ignorance or the bias is the product of an intent to attack priests when they are engaged in fulfilling their sacramental duty to God and man. As pointed out in the article to my comment, we should be able to create policy to protect children and others while respecting religious liberty. Senator Sears should withdraw this proposal.

  5. Vermont Constitution, Chapter 1 Article 3 (paraphrased) “and that no authority can, or ought be vested in or assumed by, any power whatever, that in any case interfere with or in any manner control the rights of conscience, in the free exercise of religious worship.”

    Please note the magic phrase Sears added to Article 22- ” unless justified by a compelling State interest achieved by the least restrictive means.” does not apply to Article 3.

    Sorry Dick, this bill is garbage.

  6. It takes a bit of imagination to anticipate how a law like this would work. An offender is apprehended by other means than a report by a priest to whom he has confessed and then himself reports to the authorities that he had previously confessed to the priest who hadn’t reported what he was told. What other evidence beside the reports of the two ‘offenders’ might there be? Hearsay evidence only, along with whatever imaginary horrors conjured up in the press.Furthermore, with respect to transparency, confidentiality and accountability, wouldn’t the ‘fairness’ doctrine be justly applied to the agencies of government’s own investigations, management and prosecution of such cases, so the public would have to ability to assess their success or failure, the putative good or harm they produce,which I can assure is not now the case. Not more ‘Star Chambers’ in Vt, thank you very much ‘ Mr Sears!

  7. How many children will this bill “save” that are not already reported? Other wise this is just a solution in search of a problem

  8. I wonder what happened to Dick Sears? He used to be reasonable and able to strike the right balance between the constitution and ideology. I think he’s been there too long and like others has achieved the god like status of a dick-tator. I no longer look to him for anything other than a yes vote for anything Dem/Prog.

  9. Yet, school administrators, healthcare professionals, bureacrats and elected officials can manipulate children to hate themselves based on ethnicity or gender. They will also assist the child, without parental consent or knowledge, to change their gender or become activists to further their politically-charged agenda. The church leaders remained silent in the face of great atrocities against God given rights, human decency, and human soverignty. The agenda is to mock God, malign Christian values, and use the churches as a tool to further the agenda. It is no surprise the government will turn the table on the churches. Will church leaders bite the hand that has fed them, continue to look the other way or do what they are ordained to do – defend and uphold God’s laws – not man’s laws?

  10. I may have misunderstood this article so disregard if thats the case. There ought to be a way for a priest to help if any of the circumstances arise that someone needs help. What about a little girl who has been through catechism, made her first communion and trusts that she may get someone to help her get out of an ongoing situation of abuse. At 8 years old has no one to help her. She goes to the confessional seeking that help. Gets told to say 3 hail marys and return home. She does and she prays and waits, waits for 9 more years until she can move from her home. The only person she trusted was a priest. Sad and true story.

    • The Confession booth is for CONFESSING sins, not revealing that you have been the victim of a sinner. If a little girl has been abused, she should “confess” it to someone who is a mandatory reporter, like a teacher or guidance counselor.

  11. If the Senate were actually concerned with Child abuse in VT, they would prosecute every Superintendent and School Board member that allowed Drag Queens in schools. They would prosecute every adult who self identifies as Minor attracted. They would prosecute every Legislator that voted for Prop 5 / Article 22. They would prosecute every health care worker that provides drugs or surgery to destroy the child because of their transgender agenda.

    Understand this has nothing to do with protecting children. It is only about trying to remove God and the sacred bond of Confession.
    Every child molester should be held criminally liable. That includes everyone I previously mentioned.
    Instead of trying to get into the Confessional, maybe they should look in the mirror and ask themselves why they don’t prosecute the criminals that are right in front of them ? ( including many sitting next to them under the Golden Dome )

  12. What I find especially troubling is that Senator Sears has been serving for 30 years! Look at his committee assignments!!!
    How does a 30 year senator not possess a basic, undergraduate level, understanding of constitutional rights?? Shocking.