Three North Dakota state legislators introduced a bill this week that would oblige Catholic priests to violate the seal of confession in cases of confirmed or suspected child abuse, on penalty of imprisonment or heavy fines.
The bill was introduced Jan. 12 by state senators Judy Lee (R), Kathy Hogan (D), and Curt Kreun (R), and state representatives Mike Brandenburg (R) and Mary Schneider (D).
The current mandatory reporting law in North Dakota states that clergy are considered mandatory reporters of known or suspected child abuse, except in cases when “the knowledge or suspicion is derived from information received in the capacity of spiritual adviser”, such as in the confessional.
The bill, SB 2180, would amend that law to abolish this exception. If passed, priests who would fail to report known or suspected child abuse, even if revealed in the confessional, would be considered guilty of a Class B misdemeanor and face 30 days in jail or fines up to $1,500 or both.
Priests are bound by canon law, deriving from divine law, to keep the contents of a confession confidential, and are not even allowed to reveal whether or not a confession took place. The Code of Canon Law states that “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.”
Priests cannot violate the seal even under threat of imprisonment or civil penalty, and can incur a latae sententiae excommunication if they do. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1467, explains the Church’s teaching on the seal of confession:
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