Many, but not all, of the fifty States of the USA have statutes that prevent members of the clergy (of whatever faith) from reporting to civil authorities information about child abuse or neglect that the clergy person acquires in a confidential setting. An effort to repeal or revise these statutes is underway and this effort is rooted both in the sense of urgency placed on the subject by the American people and in a critical moral value that is being violated.
Unquestionably, secrets have a proper place in our lives. At times governments need secrets, businesses need secrets, families need secrets, individuals need secrets, and even churches need secrets. But, if secrets contribute to the abuse or neglect of a minor, that form of secrecy is immoral and perhaps illegal, depending on the civil laws at hand.
However, Americans have taken steps to curtail secrecy that might harm children. All fifty States, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories have enacted statutes that require certain persons to report to civil authorities any information these persons acquire regarding abuse or neglect of a child. These persons are referred to as mandatory reporters.
Yet, at the same time, many of the States also have a clergy-penitent privilege law that protects criminals who abuse or neglect children by shielding from civil authorities information about the abuse or neglect of a child that is revealed to a clergyperson in a confidential setting. These clergy-penitent privilege laws must be repealed or revised.
Moreover, I contend that the enactment of all these mandatory reporting laws clearly demonstrates that throughout the USA people deem protecting children from abuse or neglect to be a fundamental right of children, perhaps akin to the 1954 United States Supreme Court Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision in which the Court ruled that racial discrimination in public schools is unconstitutional. In short, all children have a fundamental right to a public-school education and, I say, all children have a fundamental right to be protected from abuse or neglect.
Consequently, in my opinion, no institution in our society, not even a recognized religion, has a significant advantage over governments’ compelling interest and responsibility to protect its children from harm by abuse or neglect. So, I say, when such a compelling government interest is pursued by the least restrictive means, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would not be violated.
As a result, governments should intervene such that, while perhaps frustrating the free exercise of religion for some people, the greater good of protecting children from abuse or neglect would be enhanced for the common good of all people. Our society should protect children, rather than protecting culprits.
Next, concerning a basic moral principle involved, the trauma caused by childhood abuse or neglect can injure the victim in one form or another such that the person’s life trajectory is substantially, and possibly even permanently, altered. Thus, child abuse or neglect violates the moral principle found in the divine teaching of the Fifth Commandment of the Decalogue, “Thou shall not kill”, just as intentional homicide and unjust violence also violate that moral principle.
As a Catholic priest, I also note that, regarding the Fifth Commandment, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches that preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm, and that public authority has the right and duty to punish criminals appropriately because punishment has the effect of preserving public order and the safety of persons (CCC, # 2266). The Catechism also teaches that for a sinner to reconcile with God, the sinner must also reconcile with society by repairing damage done (CCC, # 1459). And in the Bible Jesus teaches that whatever we do (or don’t do) for the least among us, we do (or don’t do) for Jesus (cf. Mt. 25: 31-46).
Therefore, any law that hides criminals and endangers potential victims violates a basic moral principle of human life, the Fifth Commandment, and that law must be repealed or altered.
Finally, I am a priest who has called for a modification to the Catholic Church’s seal of confession law that forbids priests from betraying a penitent in any way. Here is the link to my two-page article in that regard as it appears on the website of the National Catholic Reporter. https://www.ncronline.org/news/accountability/now-time-modify-catholic-churchs-seal-confession
It’s about protecting children, not criminals.
James E. Connell is a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, a canon lawyer, an advocate for victims/survivors of sexual abuse, and a member of Catholic Whistleblowers.