Thursday, May 09, 2002

Rabbis Must Report Acts of Child Abuse: Local Leaders Agree Upon an Amendment to the Abuse Reporting Bill

Jewish Advocate, May 9, 2002 -  V.193; N.18 3
By Jason Nielsen

BOSTON -- Naming clergy members as mandatory reporters of suspected acts of child abuse, local lawmakers along with social and religious leaders drafted the final version of an amendment to the Abuse Reporting Bill last Tuesday, April 23, sending it to the desk of Acting Governor Jane Swift to sign into law.

Co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Tucker (D-Andover), Sen. Cheryl Jacques (D-Needham), Reps. Byron Rushing (D-Boston) and Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford), the amended statute responds to the current situation involving the sexual abuse of children by members of the Catholic Church.

"The Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA) was certainly comfortable to the notion that clergy be held to the same standards as everyone else," expressed Sheila Decter, executive director of JALSA and participant in the drafting of the amendment.

One of the main concerns in naming additional reporters to the bill was to not define those associated or affiliated with religious organizations as so broad as to place unnecessary burden on those unconstitutionally required to report like the head of the janitorial department at the Maimonides School, explains lawyer Joel Eigerman, one of the architects of the amendment. "It's not constitutionally permissible to put a burden on somebody, just because he has a religious affiliation."

Yet there remains a discrepancy. Eigerman notes how a little league coach sponsored by a religious organization would become liable, while one sponsored by a pizzeria may not be required to report.
Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston's Executive Director Nancy Kaufman added, "While we realize that there may be gray areas that present ethical and legal dilemmas for Jewish and non-Jewish clergy alike, on the whole I think that this legislation is a positive development."

Another worry held by both Jewish community and religious leaders was that the amended law would impede upon the unique role clergy plays in people's lives.

"The subtlety of the issue has to do with the role the clergy play in people's lives, which the state can't really understand: People don't come to their senator for counseling, they come for legal matters and help in social endeavors; it is not forgiveness and counseling," explained Rabbi Barry Starr of Temple Israel in Sharon.

Hoping to subdue concerns, the amendment states that the clergy member shall be required to report all cases of abuse, "but need not report information solely gained in confession or similarly confidential communication in other religious faiths. Nothing in the general laws shall be construed to modify or limit the duty."

Rabbi Meir Sendor of Young Israel in Sharon asserts that this may be closer to the Jewish perspective rather than the Catholic one, which comes from the vantage point of a privileged relationship -- such as the clergy-penitent one -- whose integrity must be protected.

"The Jewish perspective starts from the opposite direction. In truth, we should maintain confidentiality in all of our communication with other people. In other words we are not permitted to gossip. Yet, when there is an issue where someone may be in physical, emotional or financial harm, one must break that confidentiality in a controlled manner, informing only those who may be in harm's way or those who may be able to remedy the situation."

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