WITH AN INTENSE lobbying campaign, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick managed to kill in 48 hours a proposed Maryland law that would require priests to report suspected child abuse they heard about in the confessional. The law, he argued, would force a priest to violate one of his most sacred duties, and he would rather go to jail than honor it. As one of the most responsible bishops during the sex abuse scandal, the archbishop of Washington should be taken seriously when he takes such a passionate stand.
Though a number of states have considered revoking what's known as the clergy-penitent privilege, the law generally is on Cardinal McCarrick's side. For Catholics, at least, the courts have recognized that confession is a tenet central to the religion. That said, Cardinal McCarrick might want to treat this less as an entitlement than as an enormous privilege that carries grave responsibility. After all, no other counselor's privilege is absolute: Psychiatrists must report suspected abuse, and attorneys must report any knowledge of future crimes.
After working so hard to kill the bill, Cardinal McCarrick, we hope, will also issue explicit instructions to his clergy. Referring to the diocese policy on sexual abuse is not enough, because the confessional presents unique challenges. A priest can keep silent about what he learns in confession, but that does not prevent him from reporting that same crime if he learns about it in any other way. If the person confessing is a former priest, then there should be institutional mechanisms to address that quickly. If it is, say, a wife who is telling about her husband's abuse, the priest's conscience should lead him to try hard to step in or have someone else step in and protect the child.
Instead, Cardinal McCarrick has devoted his energy to fighting off any local legal reforms -- the confessional law and another that would extend the statute of limitations on civil suits past the age of 21. The first is understandable. But the statute of limitations should be extended, allowing Maryland to catch up to psychological research demonstrating the long period it sometimes takes for victims to press charges. In both cases, the church need not see the legal authorities as the enemy.