North Dakota bill would compel priests to violate confessional seal

North Dakota lawmakers have introduced a bill that would require priests to violate the seal of confession or face jail time in the state. The measure would remove the ministerial exception from mandatory reporting laws related to child abuse, requiring priests to report knowledge or suspicion of abuse even if it arose from the context of sacramental confession.

Senate Bill No. 2180, published on Jan. 12, would amend the state’s Century Code relating to mandatory reporting. It was introduced by state senators Judy Lee (R), Kathy Hogan (D), and Curt Kreun (R).

Under the current law, “a member of the clergy having knowledge of or reasonable cause to suspect a child is abused or neglected, or has died as a result of abuse or neglect, shall report the circumstances to the department if the knowledge or suspicion is derived from information received by that individual in that individual’s official or professional capacity.”

A member of the clergy “is not required to report such circumstances if the knowledge or suspicion is derived from information received in the capacity of spiritual adviser,” a category that includes sacramental confession.

But SB 2180 would delete this exception, making it a failure to report suspected abuse or neglect, even if learned in the confessional, punishable by up to 30 days in prison and/or a fine of $1,500.

Christopher Dodson, executive director and general counsel for the North Dakota Catholic Conference, told The Pillar that the bill “comes as a surprise” and is “certainly a violation of our religious freedom.”

Dodson said that the state Catholic conference, which represents North Dakota’s two dioceses on matters of public policy, would “definitely oppose the bill.”

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