State Attacks Church

The 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.

In 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 abuse.

Now 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."

"The 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."

The 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.

But 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.

"The 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 clause."

Rep. 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.

"This 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."

Heaven 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 authorities.

We 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.

Or do we?

February 3, 2003

Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny (send him mail) is a freelance writer.