States' Abuse Bills Focus on Clergy
By Kathleen Murphy, Staff Writer
State lawmakers are taking steps to strengthen abuse laws in response to the sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the U.S. Catholic Church.
California, Connecticut and Pennsylvania approved laws last year that give adult victims more time to pursue lawsuits over childhood sexual abuse. Now Washington, Kentucky, Hawaii, Virginia, Wisconsin and Iowa are considering laws requiring clergy to report child sexual abuse to law enforcement officials.
Sixteen states already include clergy as mandatory reporters, while another 18 define all people as mandatory reporters of abuse, according to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse & Neglect Information, a federal agency.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has supported toughening reporting laws as long as the bills don't violate the privilege of confession.
In most states that require clergy to report child sex abuse, clergy are exempt from the reporting requirements if they gained information through confession or in their role as "spiritual adviser."
But the Kentucky bill would not legally protect the seal of the confessional when it shields the abuse or neglect of a child.
Kentucky Rep. Susan Westrom (D-Lexington), the bill's sponsor, said, "It's time to break the seal of secrecy. When you provide safety for someone who sexually assaults a child and allow them to roam the aisles of the sanctuary, you are taking what would be considered a very holy environment and turning it into a very unsafe environment for children. We do have the freedom to worship as we choose, however, human safety comes first."
Two states-- New Hampshire and Texasspecifically deny the clergy-penitent privilege. North Carolina and Rhode Island statutes deny any privilege as grounds for failing to report abuse, but the laws don't specifically mention clergy.
Vincent Senior, executive director of the Kentucky Catholic Conference, said, "This [bill] violates a basic tenet of the Catholic faith: confidentiality. It violates the First Amendment of the Constitution, and it violates the separation of church and state."
Victims' advocates support mandatory reporting bills including the Kentucky proposal, but say such measures are far less helpful than laws like California's and Connecticut's that extend the statute of limitations on lawsuits. Maryland lawmakers are considering a similar bill that would extend the statute of limitations for civil sexual abuse lawsuits.
"There is a huge incentive to take abuse seriously and work hard to prevent it if you know you can be sued," said David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests, a Chicago-based victims rights group.
"Many survivors are convinced that bishops can't and won't reform themselves, and ultimately it has fallen on the secular authorities to play a more vigorous role in making the church a safer place. One obvious way to do that is to change the laws," Clohessy said.
Illinois, Massachusetts, Colorado and Missouri added clergy to the list of those required to abuse in 2002. A similar measure failed in New York, and lawmakers are still feeling the debate's aftershocks.
When Roman Catholic Bishop Howard Hubbard gave the convocation at the start of this year's session in Albany and remained seated during the session, Sen. Thomas Duane, D-Manhattan, complained that it was inappropriate for Catholic "lobbyists" to be present in the chamber.
Church officials called Duane's complaint an expression of "intolerance."