Mandating Priests to Report Sexual Abuse

Under current New York state law, certain people are required to report suspicions of sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities. Members of the clergy are not among those people. But the recent pedophilia scandal in the Boston Archdiocese is causing lawmakers here to consider adding clergy to the list of people who must report child abuse. WNYC's Amy Eddings reports.

In Massachusetts, where the scandal that is roiling the church first emerged, most lawmakers were opposed to any measure that would require priests, rabbis or ministers to report suspected child abuse. But they are now rapidly working on legislation that would make them what's called "mandatory reporters." Here in New York, Democratic Assemblyman Jack McEneny is drafting a bill that would make clergy mandatory reporters here, too. He hopes to introduce it next week.

Jack McEneny: I think the bill will accomplish several goals. I think it will protect the child victims, who don't have the maximum protection now. Secondly, I think it will reinforce the fact that no one is above the law, no organization, no individual.

All 50 states have passed some kind of mandatory child abuse reporting law in order to qualify for federal funds under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. That law was originally passed in 1974. Physicians were typically the first professional class that states required to report abuse or neglect. New York's mandated reporter list includes nurses, day care workers, and peace officers. Last year, teachers and school administrators were added. McEneny was asked why clergy weren't included earlier.

McEneny: It's the same reason you didn't give this interview a year ago. Because it's timely and legislators respond to the wishes of the people, and the people are exceptionally concerned and legitimately so, at this time.

Prosecutors say it also can be politically unpopular to go after the church, or a person of religious authority. And then there's the issue of privacy between a priest and parishioner. Dennis Poust is with the New York Catholic Conference, a lobbying organization in Albany.

Dennis Poust: Confession is a sacred sacrament of the church, dating back to the origins of the church. If that confidentiality was broken, it would destroy the sacrament and it would do untold harm to the church. We absolutely could not support something that tampered with that sacrament.

Assemblyman McEneny's bill would exempt clergy from reporting child sexual abuse, if allegations were made during confession, although some advocates for victims abused by priests are opposed to this. They believe church officials have used such exemptions to to keep scandal at bay.

State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno has acknowledged that the crisis of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is a problem that may require "legislative remedies." And Assembly aides say he's in favor of the bill. Victor Vieth, with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, says mandatory reporting requirements have been essential in getting child abuse investigated, and addressed….and members of the clergy, who have frequent contact with children through parochial schools and religious education classes, should be required to report abuse. Even with mandates, though, Vieth says clergy are often reluctant.

Victor Vieth: Many clergy tend to view themselves as keeping families together. And they view the social services system as breaking families apart. I don't think any malevolance in faith-based communities. But it's clear there's a lot of ignorance.

The National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information says that if New York makes priests mandatory reporters, it will become only the 27th state to do so. For WNYC, I'm Amy Eddings.