After a representative of the State of Delaware (on the east coast of the United States) introduced a bill to repeal the seal of confession in cases of sexual abuse of minors, the diocese of Wilmington replied that the confidentiality of the sacrament was “non-negotiable.”
“The sacrament of confession and the seal of confession are a fundamental aspect of the theology and sacramental practice of the Church,” the diocese said in a statement dated March 7, 2023.
“No Catholic priest or bishop would ever break the seal of confession, regardless of the circumstances,” the diocese added. “This would result in an automatic excommunication that only the pope himself could lift,” the statement said.
Bill HB 74 was proposed by a Democratic state representative, Eric Morrison, on March 2. If it eventually passed, it would amend Title 16 of the Delaware Code on mandatory child abuse reporting. Mr. Morrison did not respond to a request from Crux for comment on the bill.
The Diocese of Wilmington includes the city of Wilmington and the counties of New Castle, Kent, and Sussex in the State of Delaware, as well as the counties of Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne, Somerset, Talbot, Wicomico, and Worcester in neighboring Maryland.
The diocese has a Catholic population of 246,476 and has a history of sexual abuse by clergy. In 2011, the diocese paid $77 million in 142 abuse allegations. The settlement came after the diocese declared bankruptcy in 2009 due to a backlog of lawsuits dating back to the 1950s.
On March 3, Utah State Rep. Angela Romero introduced a bill similar to Delaware's that would remove abuse reporting exemptions for confessions to clergy. Romero had already made a first attempt to pass this law in 2020, but it faced strong opposition and was not passed.
The concept of legislation denying the privilege of confessional confidentiality is not new. States have been trying for years to pass legislation similar to that proposed in Delaware, without success.
Other recent examples include Wisconsin last year, Montana and North Dakota in 2021, and Arizona in 2020. Many states have passed laws on reporting child abuse, but they often provide exemptions for members of the clergy in the area of confession.
The Diocese of Wilmington pointed out that, in addition to the religious ramifications of the Delaware proposed law, it is also a “clear” violation of the First Amendment to want to “interfere with this practice of our faith.”
The diocese also said the legislation would be difficult to enforce because most sacramental confessions are anonymous, noting that in all other circumstances priests have an obligation to report the abuse.
The diocese added that while it supports efforts to make Delaware a safe place for minors and vulnerable adults, “HB 74 would not contribute to those efforts in any meaningful way.”