Catholic Church says confession remains secret

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WICHITA, Kan. (KAKE) -

"I just would like for everybody to get on the same page,"said Janet Patterson, who's son was abused by a parish priest as a child.  "We're protecting children no matter what."

Monday the Vatican re-affirmed a millenia old practice - that priests cannot reveal what they learn in the confessional on pain of excommunication.  The Catholic Church says this is about history and religious freedom.  

"It's not so much a privilege of the priest as it is for the people to practice their religion, their sacramental life," said Chuck Weber, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference.

But survivors and their families say it's about trust and safety.

"So many people are so upset with the church because of this habit of concealing and lying for so long.  And when it's been concealing and lying about the safety of our children it's totally, totally, totally inexcusable," Patterson said.  "Anything that they say from up above is now suspect."

Monday's announcement comes as survivors of sexual abuse by priests are pushing for mandatory reporting laws.  In Australia and several U.S. states lawmakers are debating bills to do just that.  Laws the Catholic Church is opposing.

"When we're talking about the seal of confession you are really attacking the Catholic Church and it's ability to practice its religious liberty," Weber said.

A bill currently working its way through the Kansas statehouse would make all clergy mandatory reporters of child abuse, neglect or sexual abuse.  The church isn't opposing it, because it currently includes an exception for the confessional.

Patterson, who's also the spokesperson for the Kansas chapter of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) said that was a deliberate decision.

"If we set aside that for the while and fight that battle later on, we'd at least get the one battle over with," she explained.  "We all sometimes need more backbone.  And if this will give us backbone, it's either that or go to prison, I think people will develop backbone."

The Vatican referenced a "worrying negative prejudice against the Catholic Church" in announcing no government or law could force clergy to violate the confessional "because this duty comes directly from God."

"If unethical people are using this they can hide behind it," Patterson said.

She believes that's what happened to her son.  After hearing about his molestation at the hands of a parish priest, she says another priest immediately heard his confession.

"And I got to thinking later, that would invalidate whatever he heard.  He couldn't testify about that later," she said.

Her son later took his own life, unable to deal with what had happened to him.  She worries about the church's announcement Monday, saying the church needs to put children's safety and public trust above religious traditions.

"Once that (trust has) been violated, it's very hard to redo that," she said.  "For people who have had their children literally sacrificed to this crime, it's hard. real hard."

Weber says that's exactly what the Catholic Church in Kansas has been working to do.

"I think particularly since 1992 the Catholic Church has woke up....the people of the church hang their head in shame about the sexual because scandal.  There's no excuse for it," he said.  Then he added,  "The Catholic Church has really created what I believe is the gold standard for safe environments for our young people."

He points to new requirements for background checks and training on how to spot signs of abuse, physical, sexual or mental.  As for mandatory reporting requirements, he says he supports the bill currently being debated, but doesn't think it's necessary.

"Every single priest in the State of Kansas is already doing this now.  They are reporting instances of physical, sexual and mental abuse now," Weber said.

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