Last week Auxiliary Bishop Schuster of the Archdiocese of Seattle and I presented testimony against a Washington State bill that makes it illegal for clergy to keep penitential communications private. On Friday, however, it passed the Human Services, Youth & Early Learning committee, and will now go before the rest of the state House. This is the closest any bill that attacks the sacrament of confession has come to passing since California nearly enacted a similar law in 2019.

The Church’s canon law puts violating the seal of the confessional in the highest category of crimes, on par with physically assaulting the pope. Priests who violate this solemn obligation are automatically excommunicated from the Church. Kings and military dictators have learned over the centuries that you can’t coerce priests into breaking the seal of the confessional. They’ll be martyrs, not state witnesses, if you try.

The confessional’s confidential nature does not, however, prevent priests from using the sacrament to advance the Church’s commitment to justice and child safety. Many Catholic dioceses already train their seminarians that, if they hear of abuse during a confession, the priest should encourage the penitent to repeat this information to him later outside of confession, so the priest can make a report to civil authorities and connect victims with resources to help them heal.

If a perpetrator admits abuse as part of his confession, a priest can withhold absolution (the proclamation that God forgives the penitent) if the priest suspects that a confession is insincere or that the sinner is unwilling to reform. Notre Dame law professor and canon lawyer Fr. John Paul Kimes explains, “I can say, ‘I can’t forgive your sins until you show me a sign that there’s a genuine conversion of heart. The best way to manifest that is for you to go to the police and tell them what you did. Regardless of the consequences, if you were concerned about the salvation of your soul, this is the way you show it.’”

Second, while the bills overestimate the law’s ability to coerce priests, they underestimate what their efforts will do to Catholics in the pews. If people doubt that the confessional is a safe place to lay bare their souls, they won’t come. 

Third, the pending bills in Washington, Vermont, and Delaware focus on puncturing the clergy-penitent privilege, while leaving the analogous attorney-client privilege intact.

Full story at First Things.