Kentucky Bill Seeks to Repeal Clergy
By Charles Wolfe - Associated Press
January 10, 2003
FRANKFORT, Ky. -- A state legislator has outraged religious groups
by introducing a bill that would abolish the right clergy now have
to stay silent when they learn in a confessional that a child has
The legislation strikes at a central Christian tenet that is also
written into state law, guaranteeing confidentiality when priests
or ministers are acting as spiritual advisers.
"People are not going to violate their oath," said the
Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, a Protestant minister. "They'll go to
Kentucky already requires members of the public, including clergy,
to notify civil authorities about child abuse if they learn about
the wrongdoing outside of the confessional.
But Democratic Rep. Susan Westrom, a former therapist who worked
with abused children, felt the law should go further. She said "horror
stories" of sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church and Jehovah's
Witnesses led her to introduce the legislation.
"That just made my skin crawl," Westrom said Friday.
Under her proposal, the "clergy-penitent privilege" would
be eliminated only in cases of child abuse or neglect.
The Catholic Conference of Kentucky said Westrom's legislation
violated the First Amendment right of religious freedom. A similar
bill proposed last year in Connecticut failed.
"This is not a victims' rights 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."
Under church law, a priest who disclosed a confession could be
excommunicated, Wegenast said.
Kentucky has been hit especially hard by the sex abuse crisis that
has battered the Catholic church nationwide.
About 200 civil lawsuits are pending against the Archdiocese of
Louisville, alleging sexual abuse by priests and others associated
with the church. The Lexington bishop, the Rev. J. Kendrick Williams,
resigned last year after he was accused of abuse. The state also
is home to victim advocates who have accused the Jehovah's Witnesses
of covering up abuse within the denomination.
An advocate for abuse victims said it is right for 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 Survivors
Network of Those Abused by Priests. "If an exception is to
be made to the clergy-penitent privilege, I think this is a smart
and good one to make."
Copyright © 2003, The Associated Press