Wednesday, March 14, 2012

It's Time to Break the Seal

Perhaps you’ve heard of the former Massachusetts judge who , shortly before retiring, awarded guardianship of a 31-year-old schizophrenic woman to the parents, who had intended to use that authority to legally force her to have an abortion.  The judge, Christina Harms, also ordered the woman be sterilized.

Harms based her decision on the fact that being pregnant requires the unnamed woman to stop taking her anti-psychotic medications, which makes her incompetent and creates a danger for her safety and that of others.  Harms believes that, if the woman was of sound mind, she would abort the fetus.  Furthermore, the woman has been pregnant twice before.  One pregnancy was aborted, while the other child is being raised by the woman’s parents.  In an attempt to prevent more unplanned pregnancies and “serial abortions,” Harms ordered sterilization as well.

The woman is fighting Harms’ decision, claiming she is a devout Catholic.  Her parents, however, say that isn’t true.  This is the aspect of the story that most interests me.  This judge had the authority to mandate that someone do something that goes against their religious principle.  Granted, the decision was over turned, but the initial ruling may help lay some very early foundations for changes in the law regarding certain religious practices.  Specifically, the Seal of the Confessional.  

I’m not saying that the government ought to be able restrict religious practices at will (or forcibly sterilize people), but respect for religion ought to be secondary to the effectiveness of the criminal justice system if the two come into conflict.  Why is it that one citizen can be subpoenaed and forced to testify, but another, who happens to be a priest, cannot?  Because some guy said so 1,500 years ago?

Anyway.  The Seal of the Confessional, or priest-penitent privilege, requires that a clergy member who, as part of an official religious ritual, hears a confession must keep that confession absolutely secret.  For some reason, this holds up in the courts of secular countries (although an Irish Member of Parliament is attempting to change that in his own country).  

It’s no wonder that priests got away with raping boys for so long.

Proponents of the Seal argue that legally requiring priests to report confessions would violate their religious freedom.  However, the Supreme Court has previously ruled that government can restrict certain religious practices if there is a “compelling interest” to do so.  For example, even the most ardent follower of the Aztec religion would not be allowed to make a human sacrifice.  I find it downright disturbing that our (secular) government allows priests to keep secret the confessions of murders and rapists.  Maybe they’re OK with waiting until the afterlife for justice to be served, but I sure as hell am not.  More importantly, our government shouldn’t, either.  One of the most critical means for governments to protect their citizens is through an effective criminal justice system, and allowing this irresponsible practice to continue seriously undermines that system.

And why do so many people assume that religious tolerance means catering to every religious (or at least Christian) belief out there?  Some religious beliefs are simply incompatible with the values of a secular society.  You know, the kind that America is supposed to be.  When such practices begin to threaten the safety and rights of other citizens, they ought to be curtailed.  The Church can make whatever rules it wants to, but America isn’t subject to a single one of them.

The best part is that the Christians themselves could easily resolve this whole thing.  After hearing a confession, priests give the confessor what is called a penance, which is some task to perform that will finalize the forgiveness of your sins.  Typically, a penance is a set number of prayers to say.  Even when I was a Catholic, I wondered why the priests didn’t simply require murderers to confess to the authorities as their penance.  

I assume the official response would be something to the effect of, “If we did that, the poor rapists and murderers wouldn’t confess their sins and they’d be damned for all eternity.”  Gays burn in Hell, but murderers are cool as long as they tell a priest they’re sorry.

The religious won’t like it, but this isn’t supposed to be a theocracy.  Everyone likes to rail against all those oppressive Islamic societies that run their countries according to the tenets of the Quran, but apparently it’s OK if you use the Bible.