Thomas Reese: Why Making Clergy Mandatory Reporters Won’t Solve the Catholic Abuse Crisis

The desire to protect children from abuse, both sexual and physical, has led many states to designate certain classes of people as mandatory reporters, even threatening them with jail time if they fail to report abuse.

These laws vary from state to state in terms of who are listed as mandatory reporters and what they are required to report. Mandatory reporters have included teachers, nurses, doctors, child welfare officials and police. Even psychologists and psychiatrists, who normally must respect the confidentiality of what they are told by their patients, have sometimes been covered.

Because of the failure of Catholic bishops in the past to report abusive priests to authorities, states are now also including Catholic clergy as mandatory reporters.

Most bishops do not oppose making Catholic clergymen mandatory reporters except when it comes to what a priest hears in the sacrament of confession. For centuries, church law has forbidden priests to break the seal of confession, to reveal what they hear in confession. Breaking the seal is considered a grave sin, which cannot be forgiven by an ordinary priest or bishop but is reserved to a Vatican tribunal known as the Apostolic Penitentiary. 

This confidentiality of confession was respected by Western nations for centuries, considering it on a par with client-attorney confidentiality. Note that no state is proposing that lawyers be mandatory reporters of what they learn about sexual abuse from their clients.

The confidentiality of confession was central to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 film “I Confess,” where the priest is accused of murder and cannot use the information he received in confession to defend himself. More recently, the 2014 Irish film “Calvary” features a penitent who tells the priest that he is going to kill him. Central to both films is the Catholic teaching that a priest must die rather than reveal what he hears in confession.

A priest hears a woman’s confession.
Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

If states do not exempt confession under the mandatory reporting rules, priests will have to go to jail rather than divulge what they heard in confession.

Covering confession under mandatory reporting rules would have little effect even if priests did report. Few would confess such a sin if they thought their confidences were not secure. Many pedophiles, anyway, are so delusional that they do not think what they are doing is wrong, and therefore do not confess.

Finally, it’s not often that a priest can identify who is confessing to him. A penitent could find a priest who does not know him and confess in a confessional box where there is an opaque screen between him and the priest, which would ensure anonymity.

Many non-Catholics think of confession as a get-out-of-jail-free card: Do whatever you want; confess it; and do it again. This projects visions of drug lords confessing on a regular basis while continuing to run their criminal enterprises.

In fact, for forgiveness, Catholic confession requires “firm purpose of amendment,” a sincere effort not to sin again. For the sex abuser this means no forgiveness if he does not stop. If it is a compulsive behavior, he must do everything to stop, even if that means turning himself in to authorities.

More difficult is the case of a victim telling a confessor of abuse. The victim is obviously not a sinner, but the seal of confession still covers whatever is said. Here the priest must encourage the child to tell a parent, teacher, counselor, police officer, or even to repeat the story to the priest outside of confession. This ensures that something is done to protect the child.

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Source: Religion News Service