Thursday, November 14, 1985

Experts Ponder Child Abuse Policy

Experts Ponder Child Abuse Policy
Newsday - November 14, 1985

For a judge trying a child abuse case, the issue is clear. "My bottom line is the one little girl sitting on the witness stand crying," Family Court Judge Jeffrey H. Gallet said yesterday ata conference at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. "I have to decide whether to send her home, and I want to know as much as possible about that case." 

But for a minister who may have heard the whole story from someone who abused a child, there is another issue to weigh - a congregant's legal right to confidentiality. 

"People come to us for help and expect what they say to be held confidential," said Rev. Kevin Sullivan, of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. "It's right that that expectation exists, and we should do everything in our power to support it." 

Sometimes the interests of the courts clash with the right to privacy, a central issue in a growing nationwide debate on clergy confidentiality. A year ago, a Florida clergyman was the first minister in the country jailed for refusing to divulge details of his conversation with a parishioner accused of child abuse. And as public awareness about child abuse continues to grow, clergy say they have to walk a fine line between protecting the rights of abusers who confide to ministers and protecting the rights of the children harmed. 

One solution, members of the clergy said yesterday, is to actively encourage abusers to seek professional help. "Faith must be fleshed out and become action," said Rev. Robert Ross Johnson, pastor and founder of St. Albans Congregational Church, and one of 30 people attending the conference. "Prayer must be accompanied by actions." 

He recalled an incident in which a teacher came to him and told him of a preschool student who was displaying behavior indicative of sexual molestation victims. 

"What should I do? Well, I didn't just pray about it," Johnson said. "I picked up the phone and got help," both for the child and her stepfather, who had been molesting her. 

Despite such success stories, sometimes health care professionals, who are legally required to report abuse, may not understand why the clergy doesn't follow the same procedures. "About a year and a half ago, two abused children were admitted to the hospital, and in each case the mother had gone first to the clergy," said Dr. Bruce Bogard, director of the Child Protection Team at LIJ. "They didn't report the cases. Both those kids got abused again and ended up in the hospital." 

But clergy members contend there is no clear solution to balancing both concerns.
"I don't think you can give a definitive answer," said Rabbi Herschel Billet, of Woodmere. "There are any number of possibilities, depending on a situation."