North Dakota Senate Bill 2180 was withdrawn for legislative consideration Friday, bringing a victory for religious freedom. The bill, if approved, could have turned some pastors into criminals, not for their own sins, but for complying with the divine duty of hearing other’s sins – and not divulging them.
Prior to the withdrawal, Chris Dodson of the North Dakota Catholic Conference said North Dakotans had been responding “en mass against this bill,” while “the eyes of the nation…” watched.
The bill zeroed in on the reporting of abuse, removing an exemption for clergy who garner such information specifically in their role as spiritual adviser. Spiritual ministers are already included among those mandated to report knowledge or suspicion of abuse.
In a letter to sponsors of the bill, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a civil-rights organization, called the bill an attack on the “foundational, constitutional right” of religious expression. He questioned why sponsors of the bill ignored the lawyer-client privilege and exemptions afforded psychologists and their patients, but not clergy. “Do (these others) not learn of sexual abuse behind closed doors?”
Under canon law, Catholic priests are forbidden from breaking the “seal of confession” by revealing what they’ve heard in the confessional. Doing so leads to automatic excommunication. Additionally, removing the assurance of confidentiality would have inhibited criminals from coming forward to confess their sins, and deter others from this sacrament of healing.
Donohue warned that the bill would put other religious practices at risk as well.
The Diocese of Fargo’s Bishop Folda, speaking after a conference on Friday, said he was relieved to hear of the withdrawal of the bill. “It really was an assault on our practice of the faith, not just for Catholics but for any people of faith,” he said, noting that “there are certain forums that should be sacred and inviolable” to the faithful.
The attempt alone concerned him. “It’s not the first time in history civil authorities have tried to use the life of the Church for their own ends, and that’s kind of what was going on here,” he said. “I’m grateful that so many people stood up” against it.
Folda said the Church is “utterly and completely committed to protecting children,” noting that the Church has taken “a lot of serious steps” to that end. A recent audit done in our state on abuse cases involving Catholic clergy showed these measures are proving effective.
Without a doubt, victims of abuse deserve justice and healing, but we can’t accomplish this by denying the Church its salvific mission of leading souls to confront their sins, and those who’ve gone astray access to God’s mercy which, in the end, has a communal effect. “…I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)
Let’s keep working to right the wrongs, but not by eliminating the conduits of grace that might not only save a soul, but ultimately, the soul of the world.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Feb. 1, 2021.]