A North Dakota bill that would have required priests to violate the seal of confession has been withdrawn by its co-sponsor.
The bill, SB 2180, required priests or other religious figures to report cases of child abuse or neglect to the authorities if they learned about the abuse in a confession or private conversation.
State Sen. Judy Lee (R-West Fargo), who co-sponsored the bill, requested on Jan. 29 that it be withdrawn from consideration. Lee said the controversial bill had become “a distraction” and cited a “lack of understanding about the goal and the circumstances.”
Current state law provides a religious exception for mandatory reporting of confirmed or suspected child abuse. Cases when “the knowledge or suspicion [of abuse] is derived from information received in the capacity of spiritual adviser,” such as in the confessional, do not require reporting the abuse to authorities. The bill sponsored by Lee and other senators would have revoked that exception.
The North Dakota Catholic Conference published a statement on Friday agreeing with Lee’s goals of fighting child abuse, but disagreeing over her legislation.
“We share in Senator's Lee call to do more to prevent child abuse. We simply disagreed about the bill,” said a statement from the North Dakota Catholic Conference on its Facebook page on Friday.
“The North Dakota Catholic Conference looks forward to working with her and all legislators for the protection of the weakest among us and the common good,” the conference said, thanking all who contacted their state senators in opposition to the legislation.
Lee said that the conversation regarding child abuse “has to continue.”
“We all need to do what we can to protect these little ones by intervening,” she said.
According to the Code of Canon Law, the seal of confession is “inviolable.” A priest cannot reveal the contents of a confession, nor can he say if the confession took place; for violating the seal, a priest can incur a latae sententiae excommunication.
Both of North Dakota’s bishops had previously written letters to Catholics saying that the state’s bill violated religious freedom.
Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck on Jan. 20 described the bill as one that would “[m]ake the State and not our beloved Catholic Church the moderator of our faith and our sacramental life.”
“If this bill passes it will have a direct impact on every Catholic in the State,” he said. “If this bill passes it will impede directly our free exercise of our religious beliefs and practices.”
The Bishop of Fargo said the bill was “inherently biased against religion.”
“The Church condemns the abuse of minors by any person. Priests and deacons are already mandated reporters of any suspected abuse of a minor,” Bishop John Folda of Fargo stated on Jan. 22. “Up until now, spiritual advising has been exempted from this mandate, but SB 2180 would end this exemption.”
Folda stated that the bill, if it became law, would “violate the rights of all people of faith to practice their religion without government interference.”
Furthermore, he warned that “for centuries, tyrants have attempted to infiltrate the sanctity of the confessional for their own ends, and this is yet another attempt to violate the sacred confidentiality of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”