Lawmakers: Clergy Are Not Exempt
Confessional Secrecy Is the Focus of Sex Abuse Bill

By Daniel Barrick
Concord Monitor [Concord NH]
February 12, 2003

The secrecy of the confession booth should not keep clergy from reporting sexual abuse, according to proponents of a new bill.

The bill, which would require clergy to break the privacy of confessions in instances of child abuse, would result in increased safety for children, its supporters said. But opponents claim the bill infringes on the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom.

"The history of childhood is grim, and much of it is the result of Church doctrine," Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, one of the bill's sponsors, said yesterday at a hearing before the Children and Family Law Committee. "Secrecy, especially regarding the rights of children, is neither the right nor the privilege of any religious leader."

The proposal seeks to resolve what some see as a discrepancy between two state statutes. The Child Protection Act of 1979 requires all persons, including clergy, to report instances of child abuse. But another statute exempts clergy from having to reveal in court "a confession or confidence made to him in his professional character as spiritual advisor."

Last December, the Diocese of Manchester and the attorney general's office signed an agreement requiring the church to report all abuse allegations. In describing the settlement, then-Attorney General Phil McLaughlin said that it did not apply to the confession booth.

That exemption, the bill's proponents said yesterday, poses an unacceptable danger to children's safety.

"Child abusers should not be able to hide anywhere; not in a church or a confessional, not behind a white collar or in flowing robes," said Steve Varnum, spokesman for the Children's Alliance of New Hampshire.

But diocese representatives said the bill would force Catholics to violate one of the central tenets of their faith. Diane Murphy Quinlan, assistant for policy administration for the diocese, told committee members yesterday that the seal of the confessional is so sacred that a priest who violated it would be excommunicated. The sacrament of confession is protected by the First Amendment, she said.

Louis Giovino, a spokesman for the Catholic League, said requiring priests to reveal the contents of a church member's confession would do nothing to improve the church's reporting procedures, and would only infringe on one of its most important sacraments.

"The sanctity of confession is integral to the church," Giovino said. "Priests have died protecting that seal."

He said there is no evidence of priests using the protection of the confession booth to hide instances of sexual abuse. If a priest did learn of abuse through a confession, Giovino said, he would urge the confessor to talk to the police or other authorities.

"They come out anyway, in other ways," he said. "This bill is way beyond what needs to be done."

Courts have generally upheld the clergy-penitent privilege, considering it on par with the attorney-client relationship, which protects communication between lawyer and client. But Jon Garon, a law professor at Franklin Pierce Law Center, said some courts - in Texas and California, for instance - have compelled priests to testify when the information could not be found out any other way.

A similar bill was introduced in the Kentucky Legislature earlier this year. Four other states - West Virginia, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Texas - require clergy to report child abuse, even if revealed in the confession booth. Twenty-nine states require their residents to report any instance of child abuse. The New Hampshire bill is co-sponsored by Gile and Douglas Brueggemann, both Concord Democrats.

(Daniel Barrick can be reached at 224-5301, ext. 322, or by e-mail at


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