Supreme Court has not yet declared it, but the "separation
of church and State" is being redefined in our time. It is
no accident that while the role of the state is continually expanding,
the influence of the church over even its internal affairs is shrinking.
Massachusetts last year, the state's attorney general announced
he was seeking a role for his office in "monitoring" the
recruitment, selection and training of candidates for the priesthood
in the Catholic Church. To avoid prosecution under the state's child
endangerment law, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester late
last year signed an agreement with the attorney general of New Hampshire
that gives the AG's office unprecedented supervisory authority over
church personnel and procedures in dealing with allegations of sexual
a state representative has filed a bill in Concord that would require
a priest to report and bear witness to allegations or confessions
of child sex abuse that he might hear while administering the sacrament
of reconciliation, more commonly called confession. Perhaps the
new principle governing church-state relationships should be called
"separation of priest and sacrament."
amendment we are proposing removes the priest-penitent privilege,"
Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, D-Concord, told The Union Leader.
The bill would amend the Privileged Communications statute, RSA
516:35, pertaining to witnesses in court. The section now reads:
"A priest, rabbi or licensed minister of any church or a duly
accredited Christian Science practitioner shall not be required
to disclose a confession or confidence made to him in his professional
character as spiritual adviser, unless the person confessing or
confiding waives the privilege."
Gile bill declares the exemption "shall not apply to the disclosure
of information relative to suspected or confirmed child abuse and
nothing in this section shall exempt a religious leader from RSA
169-C:29," the reporting requirement of the Child Protection
Act. That provision requires anyone having reason to suspect abuse
or neglect of a child to report said suspicion to the state's Department
of Health and Human Services. Both the Child Protection Act and
the Privileged Communications statute were enacted in 1979.
the centuries-old "seal" of confession, as observed in
the Catholic Church and in some other religious communions, is rooted
and preserved in canon law and may not be broken to satisfy the
demands of the state of New Hampshire or any other earthly authority.
And there is no doubt such demands are growing. A bill similar to
Gile's has been introduced in the Kentucky Legislature and the idea
will likely spread to other states, if it hasn't already. The sudden
enthusiasm of lawmakers for the confessional might be encouraging,
were it not for the purpose of hearing other people's confessions.
sanctity of the confessional is one of the most important elements
of the sacrament of reconciliation," said William Donohue,
president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
"Indeed, it is impossible to fathom how the sacrament could
operate if the government is permitted to penetrate the privacy
of the priest-penitent relationship. At stake is both the religious
liberty clause of the 1st Amendment and the establishment
Gile said she filed the bill at the request of Anne Coughlin, identified
in The Union Leader story as "a Concord mother of two and a
practicing Catholic." She is also, as noted in the story, a
member of an organization of lay Catholics called Voice of the Faithful
and is spokesman for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic
and Sexual Violence. While not speaking for either organization
on the Gile bill, Coughlin described it in terms of a church reform
as well as a child protection measure.
is a defense of a Catholic institution," she said. "Confession
is supposed to be a spiritual reconnection with God and not a place
to go to evade the consequences of your action."
help an institution defended by Anne Coughlin. She is, in her words,
"absolutely convinced" that "priests who have been
in abusive situations have talked to each other and probably have
revealed information that should have been reported." But the
"confessional seal" does not cover mere conversations
with or between priests. It does not prevent a priest from reporting
knowledge of crimes or abuses gained apart from the sacramental
rite of penance. But it does forbid turning the confessor into informer
and making the confessional a virtual listening post for secular
want the government to be vigilant in protecting children from abuse,
but we also want reasonable limits on the vigilance of the state.
Otherwise, we might also do away with the "privileged communications"
between client and attorney, a guarantee of confidentiality extended
to those suspected of even the most appalling and outrageous crimes.
As a free people, we don't want everything to come under the watchful
eye or listening ear of the government.
Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny (send
him mail) is a freelance writer.