LOMPOC, Calif. - A California bill advancing in the State Senate would require clergymen to report child abuse to authorities, even if they learn of it in confession.
Leaders of the Catholic Church claim the legislation would violate their freedom of religion.
Father Joy Lawrence Santos of the Queen of Angels Church in Lompoc says confession is one of the most sacred sacraments of the church.
“It's all about God's love, God's mercy and forgiveness.”
Lawrence Santos says when a parishioner opens up to him about their sins, it stays between them and God.
“They confess, and then we give the pennant absolution. We cannot reveal anything that was confessed,” Santos said.
SB 360 proposes to change that if a confession involves child abuse or neglect.
“This bill would level the playing field by holding [clergymen] to the same standard as every other mandated reporter,” explained the bill's author, State Senator Jerry Hill.
In California, there are 46 categories of mandated reporters including teachers, therapists, doctors, peace officers, and even priests. However, current law exempts them from reporting abuse if it is disclosed in penitentiary confession.
The San Mateo Senator accuses the church of exploiting this exemption.
“Members of the clergy have confessed to other members of the clergy about their abusive behavior or the fact that they know of someone who is abused and that has gone ignored,” Hill said.
The Lompoc priest insists the legislation infringes his freedom of religion.
“The information received by a priest in confession doesn't belong to him, it belongs to God alone," Santos said.
Senator Hill says no freedoms are absolute.
"I mean in freedom of speech, you can't walk into a crowded movie theater and yell 'fire!' Polygamy is not legal and there are some religious practices that condone or promote polygamy,” Hill said.
According to Father Lawrence Santos, if priests do learn of wrongdoing in confession, they can provide advice. However, he adds that it is ultimately between the penitent and God, and it is up to the offender to come forward.
The Appropriations Commitee is set to discuss the legislation over the following week. If signed into law, California would join 12 other states in removing clergy exemption from mandatory reporting laws.
On Thursday, Pope Francis issued a statement requiring men and women of the cloth to report clergy sex abuse and cover-ups to church authorities.
The letter does not address penitentiary confessions, but it does ask priests and nuns to adhere to state laws:
"The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful. In order that these phenomena, in all their forms, never happen again, a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church, so that personal sanctity and moral commitment can contribute to promoting the full credibility of the Gospel message and the effectiveness of the Church’s mission....
These norms apply without prejudice to the rights and obligations established in each place by state laws."
Thursday's statement is Francis' latest effort to hold Catholic leaders accountable for their role in the number of sex abuse scandals plaguing the religion's reputation.
Central Coast counselors say child abuse is heavily under reported.
“It's definitely a national crisis,” said Heather Guthrie-Knowless, director of counsel at Stand Strong in San Luis Obispo (formerly the Women's Shelter). "I think that there's a lot of folks that feel like it's a behind closed doors kind of problem."
The agency offers victims shelter, legal help, and therapy.
“With very very young children we employ things like thera-play, where they work out their trauma through play,” Guthrie-Knowless said.
The experts explains signs of abuse will vary, but could involve a drastic change of behavior in minors.
“For some children it might be like a change in their grades,” Guthrie-Knowless said.