A state legislator has outraged religious groups by introducing a bill that would abolish the right that clergy now have to stay silent when they learn in a confessional that a child has been abused.
The legislation strikes at a central Christian tenet that is also written into state law, guaranteeing confidentiality when priests or ministers are acting as spiritual advisers.
“People are not going to violate their oath,” said the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, a Protestant minister. “They’ll go to jail.”
Kentucky already requires members of the public, including clergy, to notify civil authorities about child abuse if they learn about the wrongdoing outside of the confessional.
But Democratic Rep. Susan Westrom, a former therapist who worked with abused children, felt the law should go further. She said “horror stories” of sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses led her to introduce the legislation.
“That just made my skin crawl,” Westrom said yesterday.
Under her proposal, the “clergy-penitent privilege” would be eliminated only in cases of child abuse or neglect.
The Catholic Conference of Kentucky said Westrom’s legislation violated the First Amendment right of religious freedom. A similar bill proposed last year in Connecticut failed.
“This is not a victims’ rights issue,” said Scott Wegenast, the conference’s lobbyist in Frankfort.
“It violates a tenet of our faith, the sacrament of penance, which is an absolutely confidential conversation between the penitent and a priest and it cannot abridged,” he said.
Under church law, a priest who disclosed a confession could be excommunicated, Wegenast said.
Kentucky has been hit especially hard by the sex abuse crisis that has battered the Catholic church nationwide.
About 200 civil lawsuits are pending against the Archdiocese of Louisville, alleging sexual abuse by priests and others associated with the church. The Lexington bishop, the Rev. J. Kendrick Williams, resigned last year after he was accused of abuse. The state also is home to victim advocates who have accused the Jehovah’s Witnesses of covering up abuse.
An advocate for abuse victims said it is right for Wes-trom to challenge an “archaic, harmful internal church rule.”
“No right is absolute, whether it’s free speech or free assembly or free religion,” David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “If an exception is to be made to the clergy-penitent privilege, I think this is a smart and good one to make.”