The NY State Assembly Must Reject Attack on Clergy-Penitent Privilege
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The Standing Committee on Children and Families of the New York State Assembly must reject bill A06662, which proposes to abrogate the Clergy-Penitent Privilege.
The Catholic Faithful of New York, as well as Catholics from other jurisdictions, are strongly and unequivocally opposed to Bill A06662. It is a direct breach of the Seal of Confession. It would also place our good Catholic priests into ecclesiastical, ethical, and legal jeopardy.
The Clergy-Penitent privilege is one of the oldest and most well-recognized privileges in the United States. In the Catholic Church, this privilege is even more deeply rooted as a tenet of the Faith. In 1215, The Seal of the Confessional was set forth in Canon 21 of the Fourth Council of the Lateran. Likewise, Canon 6 of The Council of Trent binds "If any one...saith, that the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, which the Church hath ever observed from the beginning, and doth observe, is alien from the institution and command of Christ, and is a human invention; let him be anathema." Additionally, St. Thomas Aquinas devoted an entire section of the Summa Theologiae to the Seal of Confession.
Similarly, the Clergy-Penitent Privilege has a long history in New York case law and statute. A New York court decided the first known case in America recognizing the privilege in the case of People v. Philips, N.Y. Ct. Gen. Sess. 1813 (unpublished). In Phillips, the New York court held that free exercise of religion provisions would not force a Catholic priest to testify as to a confession made to him regarding a theft. The court stated that to do so would infringe upon the priest’s right to freely practice his religion. Fifteen years later, in 1828, New York enacted the first Clergy-Penitent privilege statute, which provided the privilege to priests, ministers, and similar religious denominations. The Clergy-Penitent privilege has also been acknowledged by The United States Supreme Court in Trammel v. United States, 445 U.S. 40,51 (1980). In Trammel, the Court held that the purpose of the privilege is the recognition of “the human need to disclose to a spiritual counselor, in total and absolute confidence, what are believed to be flawed acts or thoughts and to receive priestly consolation and guidance in return.”
Today, this essential privilege has come under attack. Assemblywoman Monica Wallace has introduced Bill A06662, “to amend the civil practice law and rules and the social services law, in relation to the ‘child abuse reporting expansion (CARE) act’”.
This proposed legislation must be rejected for several reasons: 1. There would be a deterrent effect on Confessions; 2. The bill is a violation of the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the Constitution; 3. Enacting the bill would create a slippery slope, resulting in the total erosion of the clergy-penitent privilege; and 4. Since Catholic priests are forbidden to break the Seal of Confession under penalty of Excommunication, faithful priests would choose incarceration to protect the clergy-penitent privilege. This would render the bill completely ineffective, and would needlessly cause irreparable harm to the Catholic Faithful of New York.
Wherefore, the undersigned demand that the Standing Committee on Children and Families reject Bill A06662 in its entirety.
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