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Delaware General Assembly wants to eliminate seal of confession, requiring priests to report what is said in sacrament of reconciliation

Father Timothy J. Mockaitis, pastor of Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Salem, Ore., and penitent Ethan K. Alano of Salem demonstrate how a confession is conducted May 3, 2019. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

The Delaware General Assembly is taking aim at a basic tenet of the Catholic church and wants to break the seal of confession between a priest and penitent.

House Bill 74 abrogates the privilege between priest and penitent in a sacramental confession relating to child abuse and neglect. Priests would be required to report information shared in a confessional.

The Catholic Diocese of Wilmington says priests are prohibited from breaking the seal of confession and are bound to keep the confidence of penitents in the sacrament of reconciliation.

“The Sacrament of Confession and its seal of confession is a fundamental aspect of the church’s sacramental theology and practice. It is non-negotiable,” the diocese said in a prepared statement March 6.

“No Catholic priest or bishop would ever break the seal of confession under any circumstances. To do so would incur an automatic excommunication that could only be pardoned by the pope himself. It would be a clear violation of the First Amendment for the government to interfere in this most sacred and ancient practice of our faith.

“While we support initiatives to make Delaware a safer place for minors and vulnerable adults, HB 74 would not contribute to such efforts in any meaningful way. Priests are already mandatory reporters under Delaware’s child abuse reporting law in all circumstances other than the Sacrament of Confession. Additionally, the Diocese of Wilmington’s own internal policies require all clergy to report suspected incidents of child abuse to civil authorities.

“HB 74 would not only infringe on the rights of a variety of faith communities, it would also give rise to a number of unintended consequences. Among them would be creating a requirement in law that would be nearly impossible to meet in a practical sense (the overwhelming majority of sacramental confessions are anonymous) and wholly impossible to meet without violating a fundamental tenet of our faith. The Diocese of Wilmington considers the protection of the vulnerable to be one of the most important aims of public policy. However, this legislation would not advance that vital objective.​”

Primary sponsor for the house bill is Rep. Eric Morrison. Additional sponsors are Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown and Sen. Nicole Poore. Co-sponsors are Sens. Kyra Hoffner, Sarah McBride, David Sokola and David Wilson, and Reps. Paul Baumbach, Debra Heffernan, Kendra Johnson and Cyndie Romer.

The House Judiciary Committee could hold a hearing within the next few weeks.