Senate bill would repeal clergy exemption for reporting child abuse

Published: Mar. 3, 2023 at 6:10 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Should members of the clergy be required to report child abuse if they hear it in a confessional? That’s a question raised in a new bill introduced in the Vermont Legislature.

In the Catholic faith, parishioners can seek mercy and forgiveness for their sins by confessing -- a form of spiritual healing. In most cases, the interactions between priests and their congregations are confidential.

“To use the monopoly phrase, ‘It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Bishop Christopher Coyne with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.

But what if the parishioner confesses to child abuse? A new Vermont Senate bill would remove an exemption from the state’s abuse reporting laws abuse for members of the clergy

“Child abuse is one of the most egregious offenses next to rape and murder that the government is entrusted to stop and prosecute those responsible,” said Essex County State’s Attorney Vince Illuzzi.

Senate Judiciary Committee member Friday discussed how to balance protecting kids and respecting religious liberty. The state acts on over 5,000 instances of child abuse or neglect annually. It’s not clear how many the proposed law would add

Bishop Coyne says having to disclose the sacrament of confession would violate religious liberties protected under the First Amendment. “And not just the rights of myself and the clergy but also the rights of all Catholics in the state of Vermont, and any religion that has that kind of privileged penitential communication,” he said.

Religious scholars told lawmakers that the seal of confidentiality during confession is sacred and breaking that seal of trust could result in priests being excommunicated and never being able to practice again. And to complicate matters -- confessionals are normally done anonymously, where the priest rarely knows who in the congregation is confessing. Members of the clergy say the law would make them choose between civil and canon law.

Jared Carter, a constitutional law expert at the Vermont Law School says the proposal as written would likely pass constitutional muster. “Religious exemptions are a matter of legislative grace, not constitutional command,” he said.

“I struggle with a bill like this -- how we keep faith with both that sacrament and that child,” said Sen, Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden County.

Vermont is one of over 30 states that exempt members of the clergy from having to report abuse

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