Sunday, February 01, 2004

Notification Bill Faces Challenges: Clergy Already Report Abuse, Opponents Say

Notification Bill Faces Challenges:  Clergy Already Report Abuse, Opponents Say
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post - February 1, 2004

State Sen. Janet D. Howell says no issue is more important than protecting children from abuse.

Howell (D-Fairfax), who revealed publicly in 1998 that she had been sexually abused at age 6, has successfully sponsored bills that created Virginia's Sexual Predator Registry and required that teachers be trained to recognize child abuse.

But when Howell introduced legislation requiring the clergy to report suspicion of child abuse or neglect to authorities, she encountered concerns that it would disrupt the pastor-parishioner relationship and interfere with religion.

Her bill, proposed last year and pending again in the Virginia Senate, also has strong support, including a Republican cosponsor. Proponents, some of them motivated by the scandals involving pedophile priests in the Roman Catholic Church, say the legislation would lead to greater reporting of abuse allegations while giving members of the clergy immunity from lawsuits if they report abuse that turns out to be unfounded.

Yet the bill's prospects for passage are uncertain, according to people on both sides of the debate. Last year, it passed the Senate easily but died in a House of Delegates committee. Last week, it barely survived a Senate committee, winning a recommendation, 8 to 6, with little support from the chamber's controlling Republicans.

It is unclear when the full Senate might vote on the measure.

"There is no need for this bill," said Jack Knapp, executive director of the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists, a coalition of about 500 Baptist churches that is lobbying against the legislation. "Child abuse is against the law. Pastors are law-abiding citizens, for the most part. As law-abiding citizens, they're going to report it, and they have."

The Rev. C. Douglas Smith, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which represents Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups, said the bill "does the right thing."

"It protects both children and the clergy. . . . Clergy have the opportunity to witness and see things when there are signs of abuse and neglect, and I think there are clergy who are hesitant to follow up on the hunch or suspicion," Smith said.

More than 35 states include clergy in "mandated reporter" laws, according to statistics gathered by the offices of Howell and Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D). About half require everyone to report suspected child abuse, and half specify members of the clergy and other professions that frequently deal with children.

Under Virginia law, physicians, social workers, teachers and a number of other professionals are required to report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect to authorities. Howell's bill would add "any regular minister, priest, rabbi or duly accredited practitioner . . . of any religious organization or denomination."

People covered under the law face fines of as much as $500 for the first failure to report suspected abuse and as much as $1,000 for subsequent failures. They are also immune from civil or criminal liability resulting from their reporting.

The bill exempts clergy from reporting requirements if they learn of abuse in confession or during other forms of spiritual counseling, which have traditionally been treated by courts as confidential revelations similar to the attorney-client privilege.

Howell said she would have preferred no exemptions but realized the need for them to give the legislation a chance of passage. She said she started thinking about the legislation several years ago as an outgrowth of her work to protect children from abuse.

Howell said that she has no evidence or reason to think clergy are failing to report child abuse but that she wants to protect children.

"Any child abuse is too much, and while I think clergy are among the professions least likely to be child abusers, I think they are uniquely positioned to be able to spot child abuse," she said.

Although Howell said she was not motivated to propose the law by the scandals in the Catholic Church, the issue had resonance for other supporters, such as Kaine. When Kaine announced his interest in the bill, Howell called him and agreed to sponsor it.

"I'm a Catholic," Kaine said, "and I was very, very discouraged at the activities of individual priests and what seemed to be a problem with the church not having a policy of bringing in civil authorities when allegations of abuse surfaced."

State Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R-Fairfax) had a similar motivation when he introduced a bill last year to make clergy mandated reporters. He ended up combining his bill with Howell's and is cosponsoring her legislation this year.

"These clergymen were not in jail for what they did, and I thought there was a compelling state interest in acting." he said. "It just should not be tolerated in any form."

Most of O'Brien's Republican colleagues on the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee were not convinced.

Sen. Jeannemarie A. Devolites (R-Fairfax), who voted against the bill in committee, said she is concerned that its "ambiguity" would make parishioners less inclined to speak openly to clergy and would "inhibit clergymen and women from doing their pastoral work, and I don't think that's a position we want to put them in."

"Have there been a rash of incidents of child abuse when a clergyperson didn't report something?" she said. "I asked that question, and the answer was no. It's a solution in search of a problem."


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