State Sen. Hill holds bill that would lessen secrecy exemptions for clergy who hear reports of child abuse


Following opposition from the religious community, local state Sen. Jerry Hill opted last week to hold a bill that would end an exemption that allows clergy members to not report cases of child abuse or neglect that are revealed during penitential communications.

Between the time he introduced SB 360 in February and when he decided to hold the legislation in advance of a July 9 hearing at the Assembly Public Safety Committee, the bill was scaled back. As currently written, it would require clergy members to report child abuse and neglect learned about during penitential communications only in situations where those conversations involve other clergy members or coworkers.

He said the legislation was put on hold because he hopes to bring more of his colleagues together to advance the bill.

"As we try to move forward," he told The Almanac in a July 12 statement, "the question before us remains: What can be done to protect children from sexual abuse at a time when society is finally acknowledging the great damage done when abuse is kept under wraps by institutions and professions of all kinds? It makes sense to examine what can be done to stop perpetuating abuse – especially in circumstances where scandal after scandal has shown that abuse of vulnerable individuals persists."

In previous remarks, Hill explained that the law already mandates that people such as physicians, teachers, peace officers, therapists and social workers – as well as clergy in many cases – report suspected child abuse or neglect to law enforcement. He argued that there should be no exception for clergy who are made privy to such information as part of a penitential communication.

A communication is considered "penitential" under California law if it is intended to be conveyed in confidence, if it is made to a member of the clergy who is authorized or accustomed to hear such communications, and if that member has a duty under the discipline or tenets of his or her church to keep those communications secret. Hill seeks to narrow that definition to instead refer to a communication that is verbal, made privately to a clergy member, intended to be an act of contrition or matter of conscience, and shared in a context of confidentiality "that is considered inviolate by church doctrine."

Hill stated that recent investigations from 14 state attorneys general, the federal government, and other countries have revealed "that 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 addition, similar statutes already exist in Connecticut, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.

While the Senate passed the revised bill with a 30-4 vote on May 23, Hill was made aware that the legislation would not have enough support to move on.

Over the months it was on the table, the bill received an outpouring of opposition: According to the Catholic News Agency, over 100,000 Catholics sent letters voicing their opposition to SB 360.

"Even if this bill passes, no priest may obey it," stated Bishop Michale Barber of Oakland, according to the news agency. "I will go to jail before I will obey this attack on our religious freedom." Priests who share what they learn during a confession to anyone at any time or for any reason are subject to automatic excommunication and further punishments, the agency reported.

One petition circulated by the Archdiocese of San Francisco argued that SB 360 would "deny the right to confidential confessions to priests and to tens of thousands of Catholics who work with priests in parishes and other Church agencies and ministries."

Supporters of the bill include a number of child advocacy groups, Restorative Justice International, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and the Truth and Transparency Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has released documents and engaged in investigative reporting about religious institutions on the topics of finance, policies and abuse.

Reports of abuse perpetrated or hidden by religious leaders continue to emerge, and there have been cases reported locally and across denominations, such as in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the United Methodist Church, and the Jehovah's Witnesses church communities, according to Hill.

In March, a Catholic priest was arrested in the Bay Area on suspicion of 30 counts of child sex abuse in 2016 and 2017.

In May, Vice News published a report that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known widely as the Mormon church, has a "helpline" that the church's congregation leaders, called bishops, are instructed to call when they receive confessions of sexual abuse, rather than alerting local law enforcement authorities directly and immediately. Vice News reports that calls reporting abuse are directed to a law firm the church works with, Kirton McConkie, which also defends the church in abuse-related lawsuits – meaning defense lawyers are used to screen abuse reports. The church contends the helpline is designed to maintain confidentiality and advise bishops about compliance with local abuse reporting laws, according to its news publication, Deseret News.

"This issue remains important to me, and I will continue to champion it in the hope that my colleagues can come together on legislation," Hill said. "I strongly believe that for any institution, self-policing and self-investigation are not effective ways to combat alleged abuse, as our own state Legislature has found.

"The bill is on pause; it has not been withdrawn.”


Sign up for Almanac Express to get news updates. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Or show your support for local journalism by subscribing.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


2 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 18, 2019 at 11:27 am

Always thought the separation of church and state was to protect the citizens.
One solution to the problem of child abuse by priests, mulahs, ministers, rabbis etc is to cancel the tax exemption status of the pedophile and their religious facility. That out to squeeze them into compliance. Use the same punishment for not reporting confessions of sexual crimes.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

After 39 years of cakes and pastries, Palo Alto institution Prolific Oven to close
By Elena Kadvany | 55 comments | 17,392 views

Local Transit to the Rescue?
By Sherry Listgarten | 16 comments | 1,988 views

The Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) Process Explained
By Steve Levy | 8 comments | 1,437 views

"You Gotta Have Balls [to do counseling] . . .
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,200 views

How to end the summer
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 657 views


Register now!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

More info