Why Delaware’s clergy-penitent privilege law should be repealed | Opinion

Unquestionably, secrets have a proper place in our lives. But, if secrets contribute to the abuse or neglect of a minor, that form of secrecy is immoral and detrimental to the common good of the society.

However, Americans have taken steps to curtail secrecy that might harm children. All 50 States, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories have enacted statutes that require certain persons to report to civil authorities any information these persons acquire regarding abuse or neglect of a child. These persons are referred to as mandatory reporters.

Yet, at the same time, many of the states also have a clergy-penitent privilege law that protects criminals who abuse or neglect children by shielding from civil authorities information about the abuse or neglect of a child that is revealed to a clergy person in a confidential setting. Delaware has such a law.

I contend that the enactment of all these mandatory reporting laws clearly demonstrates that, throughout the U.S., people deem protecting children from abuse or neglect to be a fundamental right of children, perhaps akin to their fundamental right to a public-school education.

Consequently, no institution in our society, not even a recognized religion, has a significant advantage over governments’ compelling interest and responsibility to protect its children from harm by abuse or neglect. Thus, no valid freedom of religion argument rooted in the absence of truth can provide a moral justification for sheltering perpetrators of abuse or neglect of children from their deserved punishment, while also endangering potential victims.

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As a result, governments should intervene such that, while perhaps frustrating the free exercise of religion for some people, the greater good of protecting children from abuse or neglect would be enhanced for the common good of all people. Our society should protect children, rather than protecting culprits.

As a Catholic Priest, I note an important teaching of the Catholic Church presented in the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" within the context of the Fifth Commandment of the Decalogue (You shall not kill), “… Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. … Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender. ...".

Of course, public authorities would need to know who abused or neglected a child.

Consequently, all people in Delaware should support the proposed HB 74 that would repeal the Delaware clergy-penitent privilege statute, legislation sponsored by Delaware state Rep. Eric Morrison along with state Sen. Nicole Poore and State Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, as well as nine co-sponsors.

The Rev. James E. Connell, J.C.D., is a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee and an advocate for victims and survivors of sexual abuse.

This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Delaware clergy-penitent privilege law