The Virginian-Pilot - January 28, 2006
RICHMOND -- Clergy would have to report child abuse cases to authorities if a bill that barely escaped a Senate committee Friday becomes law.
Two days after police charged a Newport News pastor with contributing to the delinquency of three minor girls and obstructing justice by urging someone else to keep quiet about the alleged sexual abuse, the Senate debated whether to require clergy to speak out.
Under the bill, ministers, priests, rabbis and imams would be placed in the same category as teachers, doctors, police officers and social workers who are required to call in cases of suspected child abuse and neglect. Those who fail to do so within 72 hours could be fined up to $500.
SB253 passed the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee by an 8-6 vote.
The purpose is, "to have more people looking out for our children," said Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Fairfax, a bill sponsor.
Howell said 25 states have similar guidelines for clergy.
The bill has the support of Muslim, Catholic and United Methodist Church leaders.
Imad Damaj, with the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs, said he spoke to several imams who feel that the bill will encourage them to get more training in identifying and addressing abuse.
"We want all children to be protected," said the Rev. C. Douglas Smith, the executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center.
Smith said the Newport News case illustrates the need for the law.
Newport News police charged the Rev. Floyd Blackwell, pastor of Miracle Temple Baptist Church, with three counts of obstruction and three counts of contributing to the delinquency of minors, said Harold Eley, the department's spokesman.
Police said Blackwell knew a 19-year-old was abusing the girls and did nothing about it. The 19-year-old has been charged with forcible sodomy, abduction and indecent liberties.
The obstruction charges against Blackwell stem from his alleged attempts to discourage another person from going to the police about the situation, Eley said.
"Would the bill have been helpful? Yes, Eley said. "Is it necessary? I don't know. We have an expectation that people will come forward."
Jack Knapp, executive director of the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists, said the law interferes with religious freedom. Clergy, along with everybody else, can already make anonymous phone calls to the Department of Social Services" hot-line if they know of abuse cases, Knapp said.
"This will make pastors the state's family police,: Knapp said.
Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, R-Fairfax, who opposed the bill, tried to limit its scope to clergy who fail to report child abuse by their peers. But Howell rejected that change.
The bill is likely to be challenged at several points in the coming weeks.
In the past, similar bills have been killed in committee or struggled when they reached the House of Delegates.