Thursday, March 06, 1997

Proposed law may force rabbis to report suspected sexual abuse

By Michael Gelbwasser
Jewish Advocate - March 6, 1997 (V.187; N.9 p. 5)

If a rabbi hears that a child may be getting sexually abused, should he or she notify the Massachusetts Department of Social Services?

They may have to, if state officials enact proposed legislation to add clergy to the current law's list of those required to report cases of injured, abused or neglected children under age 18. However, the bill allows clergy to withhold information obtained during privileged conversations, such as counseling sessions or confessionals.

Third Essex District state Sen. James P. Jajuga filed the bill Monday after dozens of people charged the Catholic Archdiocese with not acting on their allegations that the Rev. John J. Geoghan, 61, a Catholic priest, molested them. As of Monday, over 43 people had reportedly made these charges. The Suffolk County district attorney's office has begun investigating Geoghan, and several civil suits have been filed against him.

"This is nothing more than an additional protection for children," Jajuga said Tuesday. "That's all it is. And it acknowledges that ministers, rabbis and priests shouldn't be engaging in this type of behavior with children."

Under the law, clergy and others who have reasonable cause to believe a child is being hurt must, within 48 hours of forming such beliefs, make oral and written reports to DSS. Failure to do so is punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000.

Rabbi Michael Menitoff of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill said Tuesday that Jajuga's bill seemed "confusing" because "the only way a clergyperson would have access" to reports of abuse is through "privileged communication," which the legislation protects. As a result, clergy might be limited to reporting "what they hear on the rumor mill," he said.

"I would be very zealous about guarding as confidential anything said in my office," said Menitoff, a Conservative rabbi.

Menitoff added that he would continue to "find a way to be helpful" to anyone who tells him about abuse and, in instances of privileged communication, do it without compromising the person. That's just being a "responsible citizen," Menitoff said.

"For me, it's an open and shut case," he added. "Forget about the law."

In contrast, Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger "can't see anything wrong" with Jajuga's bill. Reporting abuse is part of "our responsibility to make sure that people are taken care of," Halbfinger, spiritual leader of Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe, a shul in Brighton, said Tuesday.

"I have no problem with it," said Halbfinger, who is also executive director of the Vaad Harabonim of Massachusetts. "If sexual abuse does take place, we should report it."

Jajuga, who filed similar legislation in 1993, said the Senate and House will likely refer his bill to the Committee on Human Services, which will schedule a hearing on it. Jajuga plans to talk to Rabbi Ira Korinow, president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, and other clergy before the hearing, which may happen within a month. Korinow is also spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill, which is in Jajuga's district.

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