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California lawmaker introduces bill tackling clergy sexual abuse of adults

This is a file photo of the California State Capitol in Sacramento. California introduced a bill Jan. 3, 2024, that would criminalize the sexual abuse of adults by clergy, holding them to the same standards of other helping professions such as medicine and psychology. If passed, the legislation would make California the 14th state to adopt such a law. (OSV News photo/Max Whittaker, Reuters)

(OSV News) — A California lawmaker has introduced a bill that would prohibit sexual abuse of adults by clergy, imposing fines and imprisonment for violators.

State Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, filed Senate Bill 894, which expands and clarifies existing law to establish criminal penalties for offending clergy.

“A member of the clergy who is in a position of trust or authority over an adult parishioner and who engages in an act of sexual intercourse, sodomy, oral copulation, or sexual contact with that adult parishioner is guilty of sexual exploitation by a member of the clergy,” the bill states.

Specifically, the bill bans the use of consent as a defense in cases when accused clergy are in a counseling or supervisory relationship with the victim. The bill does not apply to “sexual contact between a member of the clergy and their spouse or person in an equivalent domestic relationship.”

Depending upon the number of offenses and victims, maximum penalties range from six months to three years of imprisonment, and fines from $1,000 to $10,000.

Currently, 13 other states and the nation’s capital have such laws in place — including Minnesota, where in 2018 then-Father Jacob Andrew Bertrand of San Diego was sentenced to 10 years probation after pleading guilty to sexual contact with a Catholic woman under his spiritual care during a Mass celebrated privately at her family’s Minnesota home. Although previously reported by the victim to church authorities, Bertrand, who attended the North American College in Rome as a seminarian where he met her, was only laicized following his conviction under Minnesota law.

According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, then-Father Bertrand’s “holy conversations” — involving sexualized mystical theology — led to sexual assaults, one of which he told his victim was “the second holiest sacrifice next to Jesus and Mary on Calvary.”

Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, applauded the proposed California law in a Jan. 8 media statement, saying the legislation “would hold clergy to the same standards expected of those who work in other helping professions, like psychology, social work and medicine.”

The organization noted in its statement that “clergy abuse of adults not only affects those in the three major Christian groups in the United States, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, but (those) in every other religious community as well.”

With SB 894 eliminating a consent defense, SNAP survivor support director Melanie Sakoda noted “there can be no true consent when a religious leader sexualizes a relationship with someone under their pastoral care.”

In response to an OSV News request, the California Catholic Conference said it did not have a comment at this time.

Most church jurisdictions have yet to adopt the standard set by Archbishop Charles Scicluna — a leading, credible figure in the church’s fight against clergy sexual abuse — for the Maltese Ecclesiastical Province. The Malta archbishop also is adjunct secretary of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Those 2014 directives make clear that sexual contact or sexualized behavior between a “pastoral functionary” (including any bishop, cleric, religious, or lay person) and adults in a pastoral relationship “is considered to be always abusive, whether with or without consent.”

Similar to the Minnesota law and the proposed California legislation, the 2014 Maltese directives recognize the clergy are responsible for maintaining boundaries in their pastoral relationships, and prohibit a defense alleging the sexual relationship was consensual.

Gina Christian is multimedia reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X at @GinaJesseReina

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