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:

“Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents' lives.” Christopher Dodson, the executive director and general counsel for the North Dakota Catholic Conference, told CNA that he was “surprised and greatly concerned about the bill, because it would infringe upon a person's privacy and religious counseling and confession, not just for Catholics, but for everyone.” “In the United States, we expect to exercise our religion, including going to confession and having spiritual counseling, without the government invading our privacy,” he said. Dodson said that the bill was especially surprising because it was introduced a week after the conclusion of an 18 month long investigation by the state on child sexual abuse by clergy in North Dakota’s two dioceses, which found that all but one accusation of abuse by priests in the diocese had already been reported. The state identified the case of one additional priest who had been accused of abuse in the 1970s, and was not on the initial list because he was not a diocesan priest.

“The Catholic Church, including the dioceses of Fargo and Bismarck here in North Dakota, have gone to great strides to create safe environments (for children),” he said.

“The Attorney General in North Dakota just concluded an 18-month investigation of all the diocesan files and did not find anything of concern and nothing that hadn't already been reported by the two dioceses. And most of those cases of priests with sufficient allegations against them happened a long time ago. That's why we say this bill comes as a surprise.” Dodson added that there is “no evidence” that the proposed law would prevent “a single case” of child abuse, and instead it would likely dissuade some Catholics from exercising their religious freedoms, which should include going to confession and having that confession kept confidential. Lee declined to comment to CNA about the bill, while senators Hogan and Kreun could not be reached by press time.

The issue of the sacramental seal in cases of child abuse is one that has arisen several times in recent years. A similar bill that would have forced priests to violate the seal was introduced in California, and then dropped in 2019, out of concerns for religious liberty and problems of enforcement. In 2016, a Louisiana state appeals court upheld a priest’s right to uphold the sacramental seal of confession in an abuse lawsuit.

Several Australian states, including Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory, have already adopted laws forcing priests to violate the confessional seal, following recommendations made by the Royal Commission on clergy sex abuse. However, bishops and priests in those states have said they plan on defying the law and upholding the seal regardless.