Gomez: ‘Every abuse case one too many,’ but confession bill no solution

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles speaks during a lecture at The Catholic University of America in Washington Feb. 6, 2019. The Los Angeles Archdiocese and five other California dioceses, Fresno, Orange, Sacramento, San Bernardino and San Diego, announced a new independent compensation program for sex abuse victims. Archbishop Gomez and the state's other Catholic bishops also are speaking out against a bill to do away with the seal of confession in cases of abuse.

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles speaks during a lecture at The Catholic University of America in Washington Feb. 6, 2019. The Los Angeles Archdiocese and five other California dioceses, Fresno, Orange, Sacramento, San Bernardino and San Diego, announced a new independent compensation program for sex abuse victims. Archbishop Gomez and the state’s other Catholic bishops also are speaking out against a bill to do away with the seal of confession in cases of abuse. CNS photo/Bob Roller

Saying that “confession is sacred to every priest and every Catholic,” Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez is calling on Catholics to tell their state senators to vote “no” on a bill that “would order priests to disclose information they might hear in confession concerning the sexual abuse of minors.”

The measure, known as S.B. 360, “is a mortal threat to the religious freedom of every Catholic,” he said in a column published May 15 in the Angelus, the archdiocesan news outlet.

“Catholics believe that in the confessional, we can tell God everything that is on our heart and seek his healing mercy,” Archbishop Gomez said. “The priest is only an instrument; he stands in the ‘person of Christ.’ We confess our sins — not to a man but to God.

“The privacy of that intimate conversation — our ability to speak with total honesty from our lips to God’s ear — is absolutely vital to our relationship with God.”

In California, priests, along with teachers, social workers, doctors and other professionals, are “mandated reporters.” That means they are required by law to report any case of suspected abuse to authorities. Currently, there is an exemption in the law for any clergy member “who acquires knowledge or a reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect during a penitential communication.”

The sponsor of S.B. 360, Democratic state Sen. Jerry Hill, said the legislation is necessary because “the clergy-penitent privilege has been abused on a large scale, resulting in the unreported and systemic abuse of thousands of children across multiple denominations and faiths.”

In his column, Archbishop Gomez said this is “a sweeping claim” that “is simply not true.”

“Hearings on the bill have not presented a single case — in California or anywhere else — where this kind of crime could have been prevented if a priest had disclosed information he had heard in confession,” he said. “Why is no one asking the bill’s sponsor to provide evidence for his accusations against the church?”

“The fact is,” the archbishop continued, “child sexual abuse is not a sin that people confess to priests in the confessional. Those who counsel such predators tell us that sadly, many of them are secretive and manipulative and cannot comprehend the grave evil of their actions.”

He said it is “far more likely that journalists and lawyers would hear admissions about such crimes. Yet this bill does not propose doing away with the attorney-client privilege or the protection of journalists’ sources. It only targets Catholic priests.”

Archbishop Gomez called child sexual abuse “a horrible sin and crime that afflicts every area of our society. In the Catholic Church, we have grappled with this scandal for many years.”

Across California, the Catholic dioceses have policies and programs in place “to keep children safe,” he said, and they also fingerprint and do background checks on church personnel as well as “have staff who help victims” and “strict protocols for dealing with allegations against priests and others who work for the church.”

Because of such policies and protocols, new cases of child sexual abuse by priests “are rare in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and other dioceses in California,” the archbishop said.

“Every case is one too many. And the church remains vigilant in protecting children and we are committed to helping all victim-survivors find healing,” he added.

But if the goal of California lawmakers is to prevent child sexual abuse, he said, it does not make sense “from a public policy standpoint to single out Catholic priests and the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, which is the formal name for confession.”

“Sometimes the best intentions can lead to bad legislation,” the archbishop said. “That is the case with S.B. 360.”

He called it “alarming” that this bill is moving forward through the Legislature “without any evidence that it will protect children.” It is expected to be voted on in late May by the full Senate.

Archbishop Gomez opened his column with the account of how during the persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico in 1927, St. Mateo Correa Magallanes, a priest and a Knight of Columbus, would go to the jails to hear the confessions of prisoners rounded up by the government — and eventually he had to make a choice: between revealing to the authorities what he heard in confession or being killed.

A general pressed a gun to his head “threatening to kill him if he did not disclose what prisoners had told him in confession,” Archbishop Gomez said. “Mateo said, ‘You can do that, but just know that a priest must keep the seal of confession. I am willing to die.’ Shortly after that, he was taken to the outskirts of town and killed.”

“S.B. 360 should be voted down,” the archbishop said. “And we should continue working together to seek effective ways to fight this scourge of child sexual abuse in our society.”

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