Friday, June 28, 2002

Ohio bill would require rabbis to report child abuse

Ohio bill would require rabbis to report child abuse
By Marilyn H. Karfeld
Cleveland Jewish News - June 28, 2002

In response to the ongoing pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church, state Rep. Lance T. Mason of Shaker Heights recently introduced a bill in the Ohio House to require rabbis, priests and ministers to report suspected cases of child abuse to public authorities.
The proposed legislation would affect two situations: a rabbi who hears that a community member is abusing a child, and a rabbi or board of rabbis learning that a fellow member of the clergy is harming a minor.

The Jewish community is not exempt from the latter scenario. Two years ago, the Orthodox Union was accused of keeping silent about Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a top professional in the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, who allegedly sexually abused more than 20 teenage girls. Lanner was indicted last year in New Jersey on the charges.

In another case, Cantor Philip Wittlin of Harrisburg, Pa., pleaded guilty in February to corruption of minors and indecent assault. Whispers about Wittlin's sexual abuse of young girls date back at least 10 years, The Jewish Exponent reported in May.

Mason's bill would exempt clergy from revealing allegations of sex abuse communicated confidentially, such as in the confessional or in a counseling session.

But some rabbis wonder how the parameters of confidential communication will be defined. In the close-knit Orthodox community, especially, rabbis fear crossing the line between reporting lashon hora (gossip) and protecting children.

"It becomes a sensitive issue," says Rabbi Napthali Burnstein of Young Israel of Greater Cleveland. "At what point does confidentiality end and I will have to report it? Is it counseling or just something the rabbi knows from hearsay or conversation?"

In his job, Burnstein says he hears things all the time, and anything people tell him remains confidential. "The worse thing a rabbi can do is gossip." The new bill would require him to reevaluate that stance.

Patterned after a Massachusetts statute passed in April, Mason says his bill would strengthen Ohio's existing law, which requires teachers, attorneys, physicians and dentists to report any cases of suspected child abuse. Communications are protected if they are covered by attorney-client or physician-client privilege.

"I wanted there to be some accountability," says Mason, who was recently appointed to fill the seat vacated by Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones. However, the freshman legislator says prospects for the bill's passage are slim in the Republican-controlled legislature.

"The statehouse is new to me, but I'm told very few Democratic bills get passed," he says.

Since 1974, all 50 states have passed some sort of mandatory reporting law in order to qualify for federal funding for child abuse prevention and treatment. Some states exempt clergy from divulging information learned in a confidential communication, but those laws do not apply to pastoral counselors in private practice.

In the light of reports that a few Jewish clergy, as well as Catholic priests, have sexually abused children, the law is urgently needed, says Rabbi Richard Block of The Temple-Tifereth Israel.

Situations will arise where clergy are not sure if a revelation about child abuse was privileged communication, he says. Or they may be extremely concerned about a child's welfare.

"The protection of the child would be the first priority," Block says. "Clergy should err on the side of disclosure."

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