Vermont bishop testifies against clergy accountability bill

MONTPELLIER, Va. (AP) — Confessions in the Roman Catholic Church must remain confidential, even if someone tells a priest that a child has been abused, the presiding bishop of the Diocese of Vermont said Friday.

Bishop Christopher Coyne told the state Senate Judiciary Committee that the church opposes a bill that would repeal Vermont’s child abuse exemption and flout reporting laws. Clergy are currently not required to report potential evidence of such crimes if they become aware of them confidentially while acting as a spiritual advisor.

“A priest faces excommunication if he reveals a message made to him during confession,” Coyne said. “And the sacramental seal of confession is a universal law of the Catholic Church, not just of the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont,” which applies to the entire state.

The bill “cuts across a constitutionally protected element of our religious faith: the right to worship as we see fit,” Coyne said.

But information that clergy may receive outside of confession may be reported, Coyne said. “The conversations we have in our offices, the counseling we do, the spiritual direction we do, none of it is privileged, and it’s all covered by the reporting statute,” he acknowledged.

No one knows how many predators across the country have continued to abuse children despite confessing their behavior to religious officials. Religious organizations invoke this privilege as protection from civil and criminal liability after abuses are reported.

While Coyne said protecting children is critical and perpetrators must be held accountable, “ignoring fundamental religious rights is not necessary,” and the two public priorities are not mutually exclusive.

Confession, the bishop said, “is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.” Priests can urge people going to confession to do something, such as stay away from the child, get counseling or contact the authorities if crimes have been committed, he said.

“We’re not just saying there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “And it’s touching.”

The bill was introduced by state Sen. Richard Sears, the longtime chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who has worked for years to combat child abuse. He did so after learning from an Associated Press story last year that Vermont is one of 33 states that exempt clergy under certain circumstances from laws requiring professionals such as teachers, doctors and psychotherapists to report information about alleged child sexual abuse to the police or child welfare officials. .

Late last month, the state senate in Washington advanced a bill requiring clergy to report abuse. A similar measure has stalled in Utah, where most lawmakers are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It is unusual for bishops to testify, but Coyne said afterward that he had been invited by the senator to attend.

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