Defeat of California's attempt to break seal of confession a victory for religious liberty

Defeat of California’s attempt to break seal of confession a victory for religious liberty

Defeat of California’s attempt to break seal of confession a victory for religious liberty

Father Lawrence C. Goode sits in his confessional May 8, 2019, at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in East Palo Alto, Calif. (Credit: Chaz Muth/CNS.)

Kathleen Domingo is Senior Director for the Office of Life, Justice and Peace and Director of Government Relations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. She helped organize the opposition to a California bill that would have required priests to break the sacramental seal of confession in certain cases.

[Editor’s Note: Kathleen Domingo is Senior Director for the Office of Life, Justice and Peace and Director of Government Relations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. She helped organize the opposition to a California bill that would have required priests to break the sacramental seal of confession in certain cases. She spoke to Charles Camosy about SB 360 and why it was proposed in the first place, and how to fight threats to religious liberty in the future.]

Camosy: So, fill us in on the latest with SB 360, the bill that would have forced priests to violate the seal of the confessional.

Domingo: SB 360, authored by Senator Jerry Hill, sought to strengthen reporting requirements for child abuse, a goal we share. However, to achieve that goal, it removed the privacy protection for the sacrament of confession in instances of child abuse. Even after the bill was amended, priests and lay people, like me, who work at the same location as priests, would be denied the privacy protection in the sacrament.

RELATED: ‘Dangerous’ bill on seal of confession withdrawn before key hearing

SB 360 was a serious threat to our religious liberty and a dangerous precedent to all people of faith. As one legislator told us during a meeting, “I want to practice my religion the way that I want to, and I want you to be able to do the same.”

After months of legislative meetings and grassroots organizing of Catholics throughout California, we prepared a show of force for the Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing, that would have been held July 9. We delivered 140,000 signed letters to Assemblymembers and sent close to 17,000 emails from parishioners in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles alone. We had buses coming from all over California to Sacramento for the day of the hearing. Then, at the very last minute, Senator Hill pulled the bill from the committee hearing. We believe he just didn’t have the votes.

How do you think we got to this place? Why do you think the bill was proposed in the first place?

SB 360 sought to protect children by violation of the seal of the sacrament of confession. This tells us a lot about the public opinion of the Church. During this process, we learned that there is still a great deal of healing needed in the public trust toward bishops, priests, and Church leaders. We also learned that we need to do a better job of telling the stories about the wonderful things we do every day to serve those in need, to teach children, to assist the sick and dying.

So many people in this culture have lost a religious narrative. They no longer have an understanding of the Church and the sacraments. Part of our task in working on legislation such as this is to help shift that conversation by introducing legislators to priests, informing them of the good that the sacrament of confession does for individuals, families and the community, and sharing stories of people who have received therapeutic and rehabilitative help from confession that has changed their lives for the better.

You were very close to the process that led to the bill being killed in committee. What do you think was ultimately persuasive?

I believe there were two main factors that gained us ground with legislators on SB 360. First, we made a strategic effort in LA to mobilize parishioners. Archbishop José Gomez wrote a letter to all Catholics, asking them to get involved.

Our pastors, parish leaders and volunteers worked quickly and effectively. We drove 140,000 letters in a Penske truck up the state of California to drop them at Assemblymember offices! We created quite a hubbub at the Capitol! We knew that our legislators saw our efforts and recognized that their constituents were very engaged on this issue.

Secondly, we learned through meetings with legislators that there was a real lack of understanding of how the sacrament of confession works. SB 360 would have entered language in the penal code of California requiring priests to report any penitent who confessed child abuse. In practice, that just wouldn’t work. Priests, of course, would never go along with such a law. Bishops and priests stated without hesitation that they would rather face jail time than risk excommunication and eternal consequences.

Also, anyone who goes to confession knows that it can be completely anonymous. Catholics often prefer the anonymity of a penance service or drive across town to avoid confessing to their pastor. One California bishop even invited his Assemblymember to a local parish and illustrated how a confessional box works. Knowing the practical aspects of confession helped legislators have a better understanding of how the law would apply in practice.

So impressive that the Church came together so impressively to fight this. The Church clearly has a lot of fight left in her.

This has been an extremely difficult year to be a Catholic. We face a constant barrage of bad press and social pressure asking us why we remain in the Church, why we keep sending our kids to Catholic school, why we want to befriend our priests. The overwhelming response to SB 360 from everyday Catholics taught us that the sense of the faith, the love for Christ and his Church, is still very much alive and well. People talk about the loss of credibility of Church leadership. That may be true. But, the credibility of the Catholic faithful remains intact. I believe this is our strongest asset.

I hope and pray that this experience will motivate Catholics to see the power of their voice in the public square. Rather than shying away from civic engagement, Catholics should recognize that their unique perspective on critical issues of the day, founded on a well-formed conscience and understanding of the dignity of every person, carries significance in a world looking for meaning and purpose.

How best do you think we can resist future attempts to push the Church in this direction?

Catholics have a great opportunity to share our stories. We should proudly share the work we are doing in parishes, schools and ministries to create safe environments for children. Inform the community on the training provided for leaders, volunteers, families and children to identify suspicious behavior and report abuse to law enforcement. Proclaim the good works Catholics do every day to help those at the margins of our society, those whose lives are most in danger, those with the greatest need.

I would also recommend that now is the time to recommit ourselves to learning our faith. Now is the time to go back to the heart of our faith and make sure that we understand why we remain Catholic. Legislators asked me, “why are you fighting so hard on this bill? It’s not as though Catholics even go to confession anymore.” And, it breaks my heart, but they are correct. If we are to be prepared to face threats to our religious liberty, we should know and love what we are fighting for.


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