Saturday, January 11, 2003

Bill seeks to reveal abuse confessions

Clergy-penitent privilege at stake

By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press

FRANKFORT - A legislator who worked with abused children as a therapist has introduced a bill to strip away some of the secrecy of the confessional.

The bill would change Kentucky's "clergy-penitent privilege" so that it would not apply to any confession of abuse or neglect of a child.

The sponsor, Democratic Rep. Susan Westrom of Lexington, said "horror stories" of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and of alleged concealment of abuse by Jehovah's Witnesses prompted the bill.

"That just made my skin crawl," Ms. Westrom said Friday.

If enacted, clergy would be no different than counselors and therapists. Confessions of child abuse or neglect would not be legally protected. A separate Kentucky law requires people with knowledge of abuse to report it to authorities.

Ms. Westrom, who no longer has a therapy practice, said she worked exclusively with children who had been removed from their homes because of abuse.

"As a therapist, I felt very protected in knowing that I could do what was right for a child," she said. "If I were instructed not to disclose that type of information to proper authorities, I couldn't live with myself."

Critics of the bill, especially the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, say it would be an infringement on religious freedom.

"This is not a victims' rights issue. This is a church-state issue," said Scott Wegenast, the conference's lobbyist in Frankfort.

"It violates a tenet of our faith, the sacrament of penance, which is an absolutely confidential conversation between the penitent and a priest, and it cannot abridged," Mr. Wegenast said.

Under church law, a priest who disclosed a confession could be excommunicated, Mr. Wegenast said. "The priest is absolutely locked in," he said.

The director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, said the legislation probably would be unconstitutional, and she tried to dissuade Ms. Westrom before it was introduced.

"People are not going to violate their oath," the Rev. Kemper said "They'll go to jail. This is ancient common law."

The Rev. Ms. Kemper, who also is pastor of a Disciples of Christ church, said she has to carefully weigh what she sometimes hears when counseling. "If they say, `Pastor, I've come to confess and seek penance and absolution,' then I must not ever reveal that," she said.

The bill, which was assigned this week to the House Judiciary Committee, has procedural problems as well. The committee chairman, Rep. Gross Lindsay of Henderson, noted that it would not amend a statute.

Instead, it would amend the Kentucky Rules of Evidence - something that can be done only with the assent of the state Supreme Court, which sets all rules for the courts, Mr. Lindsay said.

But an advocate for victims of clergy sexual abuse said it is right for Ms. Westrom to challenge an "archaic, harmful internal church rule."

"No right is absolute, whether it's free speech or free assembly or free religion," David Clohessy, national director of SNAP - Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests - said in a telephone interview. "If an exception is to be made to the clergy-penitent privilege, I think this is a smart and good one to make."

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