Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick is taking aim at the Maryland General Assembly, charging that a legislative proposal that would require priests to report suspected child abuse would violate the sanctity of the confessional.
"If this bill were to pass, I shall instruct all priests in the Archdiocese of Washington who serve in Maryland to ignore it," McCarrick wrote in a column in the latest issue of the Catholic Standard. " . . . On this issue, I will gladly plead civil disobedience and willingly -- if not gladly -- go to jail."
In the wake of the Catholic Church's child sexual abuse scandal, state legislatures across the country are considering proposals aimed at preventing abuse by priests and at increasing the time victims have to sue the church.
Connecticut, Pennsylvania and California have extended their statutes of limitation, and Massachusetts passed a law last year requiring clergy to report any child abuse except information obtained in a confessional. Similar bills have been introduced in other states, including Virginia, and lawmakers in Kentucky and New Hampshire want to eliminate the priest-penitent privilege altogether.
But so far, just two of the 33 states that require clergy to report child sexual abuse specifically include information obtained in the confessional. Current Maryland law, for instance, contains a broad exemption for the clergy to protect such information.
That could soon change. A bill pushed by Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore) would require a priest to report any information about child abuse obtained in the confessional unless it was a direct admission from the perpetrator.
Information offered by victims during confession would have to be reported, as would information from third parties, such as the wife of a suspected abuser. The bill contains no penalties for failure to comply.
Some legal experts questioned the bill's constitutionality, but victim advocates say the current clergy exemption is too broad.
"It should be the highest moral responsibility to protect children in their own congregation," said Ellen Mugmon, legislative chairwoman of the Maryland State Council on Child Abuse and Neglect. "The scandals have made it abundantly clear that reporting by religious organizations, and not just the Catholic Church, hasn't occurred -- and to disastrous effect."
The Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal came to light early last year in Boston when the media disclosed that church officials there had covered up child abuse by several priests, reassigned them to parishes even after their misconduct had been established, and negotiated secret settlements with victims. The scandal spread across the country as victims came forward: Nationwide, about 325 priests have been removed from ministry for child abuse in the past year.
McCarrick has been more outspoken and apologetic about the pedophilia scandal than many Catholic bishops. He has often publicly expressed his concern for the victims and stressed the need for church reforms to ensure that child abuse by priests is stamped out and punished.
His spokeswoman noted yesterday that the Archdiocese of Washington -- which includes the District, Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Southern Maryland -- has instructed its priests to inform both civil authorities and the archdiocese about allegations of child abuse, including by priests, since the early 1990s.
Kelley said McCarrick's opposition to her bill "hurts his position -- they're trying to show that they are clearing things up and putting in checks and balances."
Virginia resident Mark Serrano, a board member of the national advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, agreed. "I think in our society there should be no special place where sex offenders can hide from the law," said Serrano, who supports Kelley's bill.
But McCarrick said the bill would go too far, forcing priests to violate church law by breaking the sacramental seal of the confessional. "History is filled with stories of priests who suffered even death rather than break that solemn seal," he said, urging his 550,000 followers to contact legislators. "If there is a gauntlet involved in this process, then I throw it down now."
Steve Kearney, spokesman for Cardinal William H. Keeler of the Baltimore Archdiocese, said breaking the confidentiality of the confessional is "one of the more serious things a priest can do" and results in "immediate and automatic excommunication."
"We are working with legislators through the Maryland Catholic Conference to find a resolution," Kearney added.
Several secular legal experts questioned whether the bill could pass constitutional muster. Elliot Mincberg, legal director at People for the American Way Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports church-state separation, said the state is on tricky legal ground and would have to show that the law is narrowly drawn to serve a compelling state interest. "This could be seen as directly conflicting with the rights of Catholics to practice religion in accord with their church's doctrine," he said.
Richard Dowling, a lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, is pushing lawmakers to kill the bill, along with legislation pushed by Kelley and others that would extend the time a victim of child sexual abuse can file a civil suit.
The concern over the state's statute of limitations, which requires victims to file suit by age 21, stems in part from the dismissal of lawsuits filed by victims raped in the 1970s by Baltimore Catholic schoolteacher John Merzbacher.
Dowling said that the reporting bill might be well-intentioned but that it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the sacrament of penance.
"Say the wife of an abuser confesses to not having turned in her husband who she suspects is abusing their child. She is seeking solace and forgiveness," Dowling said. "If we had a law that forced the priest to disclose that to authorities, wouldn't we possibly be putting her and the child at risk? And what if the penitent is behind the screen? The law envisions that the priest would have to ask the penitent for his or her name, address and phone number."
McCarrick's aggressive lobbying campaign in a state with a large Catholic population is already eroding support among some lawmakers. Del. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery) co-sponsored the legislation "because I wanted to protect children from abuse." Now, she is rethinking that decision. "I don't want to support anything that breaks the confidential communication of the confessional," she said.